5 Persistent Myths About Kids And COVID-19 Vaccines, Debunked

As the vaccine rollout continues for children, misinformation is swirling more than ever. Here's what parents need to know.
The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine was authorized by the FDA for use in 12- to 15-year-olds.
Aleksandr Zubkov via Getty Images
The Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine was authorized by the FDA for use in 12- to 15-year-olds.

The Food and Drug Administration on Monday authorized use of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for children in the U.S. who are between 12 and 15 years olds, a step that infectious disease and public health experts believe is crucial to help the country return to some level of “normality.” It’s also exciting news for many parents who are eager to get their children vaccinated, especially after grappling with how to proceed when they are fully immunized but their kids are not.

But plenty of other parents are hesitant. In one recent survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, 25% of parents with children ages 12 to 15 said they had no intention of getting their kids vaccinated, while 18% said they would only do so if their child’s school required it. Another 25% indicated they’d basically wait and see.

With all the COVID-19 vaccine misinformation circulating, it’s understandable that some parents have concerns, and why, after a difficult year of pandemic parenting and so many unknowns, they’re wary of signing up their children for something they’ve been incorrectly told could be harmful.

Here are some of the biggest myths about kids and COVID-19 vaccines — and some basics parents should know in light of the new Pfizer authorization for adolescents.

Myth No. 1: The COVID-19 vaccine is dangerous for children.

Perhaps the biggest misconception about the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is that it’s not safe for children.

The Pfizer vaccine was studied in more than 2,200 participants between the ages of 12 and 15, roughly half of whom received two doses. The other half received a placebo. The side effects children experienced were similar to those that older teenagers (who have been eligible for the vaccine since early April) and adults generally deal with: things like pain at the injection site, fever, chills and headache.

As is the case with adults, the FDA recommends that children who have a history of severe allergic reactions not receive the vaccine. But otherwise, the clinical trial data — which has not been peer-reviewed — did not show any safety concerns. The CDC recently said it was looking into reports that several dozen teens and young adults are experiencing heart inflammation post-vaccination, but it is not clear whether the two are actually related — and experts say it could be a coincidence.

Some parents may be worried that the vaccines weren’t approved for children earlier. They may take the longer, separate clinical trials as an indication that researchers have concerns about vaccinating kids.

“As a pediatrician, I would have preferred it if they were done simultaneously,” said Dr. Steven Abelowitz, a doctor at Coastal Kids Pediatrics in Orange County, California. “Because it’s such a charged subject, we are seeing a lot of false, non-scientific rhetoric.”

But clinical trials in children tend to take longer because they require more safety precautions. And in the case of the COVID-19 vaccines, researchers prioritized trials in adults because they’re more likely to get seriously ill if they get the disease.

“It’s a good thing that we’re researching the vaccines in different age groups, because the immune system is different,” said Dr. Mona Amin, a Florida-based pediatrician. “We can’t generalize, and that’s why the trials have gone in phases.”

Myth No. 2: The vaccine doesn’t work as well for kids.

The initial clinical trial data released this week suggests, in fact, that the Pfizer vaccine is even more effective in adolescents than adults. The FDA said it was 100% effective in preventing COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will make recommendations on how the vaccine should be used in adolescents, but groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics have made it clear they’re heartened by the clinical trial data. “We will soon have a very safe, highly effective vaccine that can prevent so much suffering,” the AAP’s president said in a statement.

Researchers still have questions about how effective the vaccine is in preventing transmission between people, simply because there’s limited data on that at this point. They also don’t yet know how long immunity will last in either kids or adults.

Myth No. 3: COVID-19 vaccines aren’t necessary for kids, because they don’t get really sick.

Unfortunately, a lot of nuance has been lost in media and political discourse about kids and COVID-19. Parents have been told that kids are practically immune to the virus. Yet they’ve also been warned at various points that their children are superspreaders.

The reality is more complex.

Children can become infected with the coronavirus — and more than 3.85 million have tested positive in the United States since the start of the pandemic. And although children generally experience less severe symptoms than adults, that’s not always the case. Some kids have developed multisystem inflammatory in children, or MIS-C, a rare but serious inflammatory condition. Researchers are also studying a relatively small but growing number of children who are grappling with symptoms of long-haul COVID.

“While fewer children than adults have suffered the most severe disease, this is not a benign disease in children,” the AAP said Monday. “Thousands of children have been hospitalized, and hundreds have died.”

This is all important information for parents and pediatricians to have in mind.

“Even if in general, children don’t get as ill as adults, the risk of illness from COVID-19 still far outweighs risk of vaccine,” Abelowitz said.

He also noted that children have a crucial role in inching the U.S. closer to the goal of herd immunity (or at least a return to normality). Getting Americans vaccinated as quickly as possible is important in preventing more variants from developing and spreading.

Getting adolescents vaccinated can help the U.S. reach herd immunity — or at least help prevent more variants from developing and spreading.
FatCamera via Getty Images
Getting adolescents vaccinated can help the U.S. reach herd immunity — or at least help prevent more variants from developing and spreading.

Myth No. 4: Vaccines can alter children’s DNA or cause fertility issues.

The Pfizer vaccine uses messenger RNA, or mRNA, technology that teaches the body’s cells to make a harmless piece of the so-called “spike protein” on the SARS-CoV-2 virus, triggering an immune response that produces antibodies.

But it does not interact with a person’s DNA, whether that person is an adult or child, so parents should not worry that mRNA vaccines will change their child’s DNA.

Likewise, there is no evidence that vaccinating adolescents could alter their fertility down the road — an idea that has been spread by antivaccination propagandists.

“That’s one of the biggest questions and concerns we hear,” Abelowitz said. Even though it has been refuted repeatedly, he said the question comes up in his own practice almost daily.

Myth No. 5: Parents are going to be forced to vaccinate their kids ASAP.

At this point, its unclear if schools can legally require COVID-19 vaccination, or whether they intend to. (The idea that vaccine refusal is a civil right is a common trope in antivaccination circles.) But it’ll also likely be months before the Pfizer vaccine is widely available to adolescents, as there are more steps to the approval process.

“I imagine by July, at the latest August, we’ll start to see them get vaccinated,” Amin said.

Whenever the time comes, it will be up to families to make these decisions with trusted health care providers, and pediatricians and public health officials are sensitive to the fact that shaming vaccine-hesitant parents is unlikely to persuade them.

“Even though I would love for every family to get their child vaccinated, I’ve seen this happen with pregnant women ... they want to wait for more data to come out,” Amin said. “Parents have that choice. They can wait for more data to come out, meaning real-world examples.”

Still, she wants parents to understand that these vaccine trials have not been rushed, and that they should not feel like they need to wait for more real-world data before they sign up their own children to be immunized. There are “checks and balances” in the clinical trials and in the approval process, Amin said.

“They should know it is absolutely OK to get it when it’s approved,” she said.

Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.

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