The recent announcement that the Pfizer mRNA COVID vaccine has been approved for use in children 12 and up was welcomed news for pediatricians and many parents. This news has caused many parents to come to us for advice on whether their children should get the COVID-19 vaccine.
The short answer is yes. We encourage vaccination for several reasons. One is that children can become very ill from COVID-19. More than 300 children have died from the infection in the United States, and thousands have been hospitalized.
The second reason is that children, particularly older children, can spread the disease to others. We will reach herd immunity faster if children and young adults are vaccinated. It is particularly important for children who have frequent contact with adults who have risk factors for severe disease to be vaccinated.
The third reason is school. Our children have been harmed most greatly by COVID in their education. The remote learning and frequent absences due to quarantine have hurt our children academically and psychologically. This virus is not going away, and the upcoming school year will be much more fulfilling and successful if our children are vaccinated and thus immune to disease.
Because the vaccine seems too good to be true, there are many who have questions or concerns or who misunderstand it. As the most scrutinized medical intervention in world history and with more than a billion doses given worldwide, there are many watchdogs ensuring its safety, but also many others spreading misinformation. We appreciate the trust you put in us as your children’s pediatricians and hope that we can help by providing clear and reassuring information. This article will focus on the Pfizer mRNA vaccine since it is the only one currently indicated for children.
Here’s how the mRNA vaccines work. Your cells make proteins by your DNA sending messenger RNA (mRNA) to your ribosomes, which are the protein factories of your cells. Your ribosomes then send the proteins out of your cell to build stuff. The mRNA vaccine is basically a fat-soluble cocoon containing mRNA that codes for a spike protein found on the outside of COVID-19. When the vaccine is administered to your muscle, the cells suck it up and the ribosomes grab it and produce that protein, just like they produce all your body’s other proteins. But when this spike protein leaves your cell, your body notices that it’s a foreigner and your immune system attacks it. This activation of your immune system is why you may feel sore or flu-ish after vaccination.
As your immune system develops an army against this spike protein, the little mRNA and the spike protein that were produced dissolve away, and all that is left is an army of cells and antibodies that are ready to fight. Because that spike protein is common to most strains of COVID-19, if your body is ever exposed to the virus, that army will mobilize and fight it off so you do not become infected. These vaccines are some of the most simple and effective vaccines ever and are based on technology that has been around for decades.
There is only one group of patients who should not get the COVID vaccine: those with a history of an allergic reaction to a COVID vaccine or to any component of the vaccine. Patients who are currently ill with COVID infection should wait until they are recovered to get vaccinated.
Here are the answers to the myths surrounding the COVID vaccine:
Myth 1: It was developed too quickly. Scientists have been developing mRNA vaccines for decades to treat or prevent a variety of illnesses and have been preparing for their use to combat a pandemic. There are several factors that allowed the vaccine to be produced so quickly:
1. Because the basic structure and safety of mRNA vaccines was already known, all the companies needed was the genetic information for COVID-19.
2. The government provided resources to help fund the production and eliminate red tape, thus allowing the companies to overlap steps and gather data faster.
3. Tens of thousands of volunteers quickly stepped up to help perform the studies. It usually takes years to gather enough subjects to test a vaccine.
4. mRNA vaccines are easier and faster to produce than regular vaccines, and the data was so solid that the companies were able to start production even before it was approved so that there would be adequate supply after approval.
Myth 2: There hasn’t been enough testing. It usually takes years to get enough volunteers to adequately test a vaccine. In this case, tens of thousands of volunteers signed up for trials, and the virus was so widespread and contagious that it didn’t take long to learn the vaccine was safe and worked incredibly well. It is about 95% effective at preventing infection, and 99% effective at preventing hospitalization or death. It does not get much better than that. The only thing we do not know is how long the immunity will last, which gets us to Myth 3.
Myth 3: It’s not FDA approved so it must not be good. FDA approval requires data on safety, efficacy (how well it works) and duration of immunity. Once enough time has gone by to see how long the immunity lasts, the vaccines will receive full FDA approval.
Myth 4: There could be long-term side effects that we’re not aware of. If there are side effects of any vaccine, they almost always occur within the first days or weeks after vaccination. We are now almost a year out from the trials, and more than six months out from full public use. Despite more than a billion doses administered worldwide, the only serious side effects have been rare anaphylactic reactions and a rare blood clotting disorder called Thrombosis with Thrombocytopenia syndrome (TTS) that is very infrequently seen with the Johnson and Johnson or AstraZeneca vaccine. As of May 12, 2021, there were 28 cases out of more than 9 million doses of J&J vaccine administered. This seems to be more common in women less than 50 years old and does not seem to occur with the mRNA vaccines such as Pfizer and Moderna.
Myth 5: Yeah, but I know (someone) who got the COVID vaccine and then (some horrible thing) happened to them, and it was because of the vaccine. Odds are that of the millions of Americans getting the vaccine each day something bad will happen to somebody that day or the next. Most stories you hear are coincidental, so it is only by looking at large populations of people that we can learn if these events are actually caused by the vaccine. The only severe side effects that have been attributed to the vaccine are those discussed in Myth 4.
Some people were alarmed when the CDC reported 4,434 deaths after COVID vaccination. But each of these were investigated and there was no link found between those deaths and the vaccine. It makes sense when you consider there have been more than 260 million doses of the COVID vaccine given in the United States, and each normal day more than 7,800 people die each day in the U.S. of routine causes.
Myth 6: I shouldn’t get the vaccine if I have allergies. Although very rare, there have been people who have had anaphylactic allergic reactions to the COVID vaccine. You should consult your physician if you have a history of an allergic reaction to other vaccines or if you are allergic to any component of the COVID vaccine. The COVID vaccine is safe for people with routine food, seasonal, environmental and latex allergies.
Myth 7: The vaccines don’t work against new variants of the virus. The spike protein that the mRNA vaccines produce immunity to is common to most strains of the virus, so the vaccine will provide protection against most variants. It is a race, however, because the longer it takes to get everyone vaccinated and get the pandemic under control, the more time the virus has to evolve into a variant that could be more infectious. The South African strain has already demonstrated the ability to infect those who have been vaccinated.
Myth 8: Getting vaccinated is pointless because we may need booster shots. We do not yet know how long immunity from the vaccine will last, but this virus may be with us for decades, so odds are we’ll need a booster at some point.
Myth 9: Natural immunity from getting infected with COVID is better than immunity from the vaccine, so (1) since I’ve had the infection I don’t need the vaccine or (2) I’ll take my chances and just get infected and be done with it. People vary in their antibody response to COVID and how long their immunity may last, and there are many documented cases of second infections. Immunity from the vaccine is much greater and more predictable than from infection.
Myth 10: I’m young and healthy so I don’t need the vaccine, and neither do my children. It is true that children and young adults are at less risk of serious infection. But we have had several children as young as weeks of age become ill with COVID, and some young adults with no medical problems have died, others have been very ill, and many have lingering symptoms. Seventy percent of those hospitalized have symptoms five months later, and 30% of regular COVID patients have symptoms that linger nine months after infection.
Even if you don’t get very sick, you could still spread it. It seems the new variants are even more infectious and cause more serious disease in younger people.
Besides all that, getting COVID is a hassle. The isolation and quarantining can cause psychological harm and has certainly hurt our children academically this school year. Those who have been vaccinated should not have to quarantine if exposed, and that could be a huge advantage to our students next school year.
Myth 11: The vaccine can cause infertility. This myth arose from a false report on social media, saying the spike protein on this coronavirus was the same as another spike protein that is involved in the growth and attachment of the placenta during pregnancy. The false report said getting the COVID-19 vaccine would cause a woman’s body to fight this different spike protein and affect her fertility.
The two spike proteins are completely different and distinct, and getting the COVID-19 vaccine will not affect the fertility of women. During the Pfizer vaccine tests, 23 women volunteers in the study became pregnant, and the only one who suffered a pregnancy loss had received a placebo, not the actual vaccine. During natural infection, the immune system generates the same antibodies to the spike protein that COVID-19 vaccines would. Thus, if COVID-19 affected fertility, there already would be an increase in miscarriage rates in women infected with COVID-19. This has not happened.
Myth 12: The vaccine will affect my genes and cause birth defects. That is not true; the mRNA vaccines do not enter the nucleus where your DNA is.
Myth 13: I shouldn’t get the vaccine if I’m breastfeeding or pregnant. Not only is the vaccine safe during pregnancy, but studies show that 99% of babies will have antibodies to COVID at birth. Antibodies also appear in the breast milk. And getting vaccinated while pregnant protects the mother too because pregnant women who get COVID can go into premature labor and also are at higher risk of becoming more ill and needing ICU care or even ventilator support.
Myth 14: Bill Gates put a microchip in the vaccine. This myth started after comments made by Gates about a digital certificate of vaccine records, not a microchip in the vaccine itself. The only microchip tracking you is in your phone.
Myth 15: The vaccine can cause magnets to stick to me. The vaccines contain mRNA and other normal vaccine ingredients such as fats, salts and a small amount of sugar. The COVID vaccines were not developed using fetal tissue, and they do not contain heavy metals, preservatives, implants, microchips or tracking devices. How do people think of these things?
Myth 16: The vaccine is the “mark of the beast” and this is all a sign of the second coming. God gifted humans with minds that can decipher the world around us and use science to improve it. It is my opinion that this and other vaccines are gifts from God that have saved millions of lives. It is our duty as Christians to care for “the least of these.” Getting vaccinated not only protects you, but others as well.
Myth 17: Why should anyone care if I don’t get vaccinated? You make your choice, and I’ll make mine. There are three problems with this attitude. One is that the vaccines aren’t 100% effective, so if you get infected there is a small chance you could spread to it someone who has been vaccinated. Second, some people have medical conditions that don’t allow them to be vaccinated, so they are depending on herd immunity to not get ill. Third, the more people who don’t get vaccinated, the longer the virus will circulate and the greater odds it will mutate, become more infectious and put us right back where we started from.
It is not a myth that we are all sick of this. In order to get back to any sense of normalcy, please get your vaccine and encourage everyone you know and love to get their’s, too. You can do so by contacting your local pharmacy or signing up on the Angelina County & Cities Health District COVID-19 vaccine website: etxcovidvaccine.com.