Ask the expert: Should I get my younger child vaccinated against COVID-19?

With the FDA's authorization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's official recommendation of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for kids ages 5 to 11, parents and caregivers of younger children are now able to vaccinate their kids against COVID-19. Though welcome news for many, some parents and caregivers are on the fence about getting their children the COVID-19 vaccine.

We asked Dr. Saira Butt, an infectious disease physician and assistant professor of clinical medicine at the IU School of Medicine, common questions parents have about the COVID-19 vaccines.

Question: Why should I get the COVID-19 vaccine for my child? Kids in this age group aren't at terribly high risk, right?

Answer: This is understandably a question many parents and caregivers of young children will have, and for good reason. We want to be sure we're doing the best for our children and keeping them healthy and safe. While thankfully the number of deaths among kids from COVID-19 is lower than adults, there have still been 6.3 million cases of COVID-19 among children and more than 24,000 hospitalizations due to the virus.

So, our kids are definitely not untouched by COVID-19. We've seen positive pediatric cases with everything from no symptoms to severe disease, and there's no way to predict how the virus will behave in any individual. Though we know a lot more about SARS-CoV-2 than we did a year ago, there are still many unknowns and potential risks with being infected.

We know the vaccines are safe. Scientists have completed all the appropriate clinical trials, reviewed data and now received FDA authorization for giving the Pfizer vaccine to children between the ages of 5 and 11. Yes, this is new, but it is not unresearched. The potential risks of actual COVID-19 infection far outweigh the minimal side effects someone may have following vaccination.

We cannot predict which children will end up having severe illness or long COVID. COVID is now one of the top 10 causes of death in children age 5 to 11. One third of kids who are hospitalized for COVID-19 do not have any underlying conditions. It is important to protect the entire 5-to-11 age group from unpredictable symptomatic, severe or long consequences of COVID-19.

Saira Butt and her three childrenView print quality image
Dr. Saira Butt plans to get her children vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as they're eligible. Photo courtesy of Saira Butt

As a parent myself of kids in this age group, I will be getting my own children vaccinated as soon as possible. I have already signed them up, and they are ready to get vaccinated as soon as the vaccine is available. My kids and I have been waiting for this day for almost two years now. I want them to go back to their taekwondo, swimming and other indoor activities that they have been missing so dearly. 

Q: I'm concerned about how fast the vaccine has been authorized for kids ages 5 to 11. How is it safe when it's been reviewed so quickly?

A: Though it may feel like the Pfizer and other mRNA vaccines have been developed quickly, research on mRNA began decades ago. And given the worldwide pandemic, a significant number of scientists and dollars were all focused on this one cause, which allowed a much more concentrated effort to developing an effective vaccine.

All of the authorized and approved vaccines have gone through the Phase I, II and III clinical trials. There was no shortage of people wanting to participate in these trials, which allowed research to continue without stopping to recruit people for the trials.

The science and research are there to back up these vaccines, with no shortcuts taken in the process.

Q: What kind of side effects do children in this younger age group have after vaccination?

A: Similar to other age groups, we're seeing mild to moderate side effects after vaccination. More children reported side effects after the second dose than the first, with symptoms including fever, fatigue, headache, chills, diarrhea, and muscle and joint pain.

Q: How do I know that getting an mRNA COVID-19 vaccine won't change my child's DNA or cause long-term effects like infertility?

A: Let's take these concerns one at a time. First, the DNA question. This is unfortunately one of the tales told by those spreading misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccines that has stuck in people's minds. 

It is impossible for mRNA (messenger RNA) to change a person's DNA. The mRNA cannot enter the cell's nucleus where DNA lives, it cannot be converted to DNA, and it cannot insert itself into DNA.

On long-term effects of the vaccine, it is true that right now we don't have any longitudinal studies of this vaccine because it is so new. But we do know how mRNA behaves in the body, and based on this knowledge, we don't expect long-term effects.

There is no evidence that getting a COVID-19 vaccine affects fertility. This myth, along with others about the mRNA vaccines, began in December 2020 and is based on misinformation about how the vaccine works. Science and research have debunked this myth, and thousands of women have gotten pregnant post-vaccine.

Q: I keep hearing about the COVID-19 vaccine causing myocarditis in children. Is that true?

A: Myocarditis, which is inflammation of the heart, is a very rare side effect of a COVID-19 vaccine, with about 26 cases per million doses of vaccine expected. While it is something to be mindful of, it is not a reason to avoid getting children vaccinated. The risk and severity of myocarditis with actual COVID-19 infection is significantly higher than what has been seen with the vaccine.