Children under 12 should receive the COVID-19 vaccination as soon as it is found to be safe and effective, which for many could be available by September, said a Geisinger specialist in pediatric infectious diseases.
Dr. Swathi Gowtham said data is being reviewed by health experts on the effectiveness of the Pfizer vaccine — to date the only one approved for children by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the results should be available by the end of this year for children as young as six months old.
“It’s important to have specific pediatric data. You can’t use an adult vaccination on a child,” she said.
Since the testing is being done in phases, Gowtham said, she expects data will be available on the effectiveness of the vaccine for children between the ages of 5 and 11 by September followed shortly by data on the vaccine for 2- to 5-year-olds and November for infants as young as six months old.
“It will be a national body of experts who will determine if it’s safe,” said Gowtham who encourages all children to be vaccinated as soon as it is made safely available. “It’s really important to vaccinate kids as quickly and safely as possible. Until then, they should follow precautions and mask indoors.”
The Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine is authorized already for use in adolescents as young as 12 and the company plans to submit trial data for children as young as 5 in September. Moderna is on its heels, testing the vaccine in 16- and 17-year-olds as well as younger kids.
Johnson & Johnson and Novavax also are testing their vaccines in adolescents. The J&J vaccine is already authorized for adults, while Novavax has filed for emergency-use authorization for its vaccine from the FDA.
A collection of experts laid out the benefits — and a few risks — of vaccinating kids during a symposium hosted Wednesday by Johns Hopkins University and the University of Washington.
“We should look at COVID-19 as a vaccine-preventable disease in children,” said Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “In terms of preventable disease and death, COVID should rank high.”
Federal data show children now make up about a quarter of new infections. And while cases are far less likely to be severe than in adults, deaths from the coronavirus are still three times more than those from flu and the long-term effects from the disease are still unknown.
That is a major reason to get vaccinated, said Gowtham, who points out that while a few hundred children and young adults have experienced mild cases of myocarditis, or heart inflammation, following inoculation, the side effect is “very rare” among mostly adolescent males.
“It’s so rare and so mild, the vaccine is still safe,” she said. “COVID itself can cause heart inflammation.”
Officials with the drug companies said during the virtual symposium that vaccine doses for children are expected to be lower than those for adults but achieve the same high efficacy.
Other panelists spoke to the concerns parents are likely to have in vaccinating their children with new vaccines, particularly Black and Hispanic residents who suffered disproportionate health disparities both before and from the pandemic.
Misinformation has spread rapidly about vaccines, especially through social media, said Amy Pisani, executive director of Vaccinate Your Family, an educational organization co-founded by former first lady Rosalynn Carter.
She said there are three main issues. Parents want vaccines that are licensed and not authorized, which will come in time. They wanted trusted messengers, which will require commitment from doctors, as well as faith and community leaders.
And, Pisani said, “they want to know about long-term effects from vaccines, and we counter that we don’t know long-term effects of COVID.”
Panelists noted that demand for vaccines has dropped. Federal figures show about 54.4 percent of the U.S. population has gotten at least one dose of vaccine. A little more than 53 percent of those aged 12 and older have had at least one dose. The vaccines most widely used, from Pfizer and Moderna, both require two doses.
How many adults and children get vaccinated will be “super important” as the more transmissible Delta variant gains a stronger foothold, said Dr. Christopher Murray, director of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
Murray said he expects a surge in cases in late fall after kids go back to school, “nowhere near what we saw last year but quite considerable.”
That means gaining parents’ trust will be crucial, said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
He said some trials have had difficulty recruiting diverse volunteers, which could portend issues gaining some parents’ trust for vaccinations.
“It’ll be really important to invest in outreach and sustained engagement,” he said.
But one thing already is clear if vaccination rates don’t grow.
Said U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier, a Democrat from Washington state: “This virus is so contagious it will find you if you are not vaccinated.”
The Tribune News Service contributed to this article.
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