In a detailed review of current international research, experts working with Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force are assuring guardians and parents that the benefits of vaccinating young children far outweigh the risks.
Published online December 1, the authors of Vaccinating Children against COVID-19: The Benefits Outweigh the Risks note this is especially important as new variants of concern like Omicron “continue to challenge pandemic management.”
“There are a lot of questions that parents have had around whether they should vaccinate their children against COVID and questions about the safety and the effectiveness of the vaccines,” report co-author Dr. Karina Top said in an interview Monday afternoon.
“So we wanted to make sure that there was clear information available to them and to really demonstrate our support as vaccine researchers for pediatric vaccination against COVID-19.”
Top is a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the IWK Health Centre and an investigator at the Canadian Center for Vaccinology. She said in addition to no clinical trial safety concerns, tens of thousands of children between the ages of five to 11 were vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine in Canada and another five million in the United States with no safety concerns.
“We’re monitoring that very closely, so that should also provide reassurance … Children in school are one of the largest unvaccinated groups still in the population that are contracting COVID,” she said.
“Children can get very seriously ill, and a small number of children can develop a condition called multisystem inflammatory syndrome that can occur a few weeks after their initial COVID infection.”
That syndrome is associated with high fevers that can cause inflammation of the heart and other organs. Top said most children who develop it will be hospitalized.
In addition to the rare but serious risks associated with children contracting COVID-19, Top said they can transmit it to those who are vulnerable as well as other unvaccinated people — including school classmates.
“We’re heading into the holiday season, and this is the best way for us to protect children and prevent them from spreading it to their grandparents and other vulnerable family members as well so we can enjoy a safer holiday season this year,” she said.
Top said there’s also the risk of children developing post-COVID syndrome, something vaccination can prevent.
“Long COVID is also a growing concern because we know that some children, even with relatively mild symptoms from their initial COVID infection, can go on to develop persistent symptoms or symptoms of post-COVID syndrome or long COVID,” Top said.
“That’s an area that is emerging and we don’t have a lot of information on it, but vaccination will also prevent that from occurring.”
While much remains unknown about the Omicron variant, Top said what is known is that it has taken off at an exponential rate among unvaccinated people.
“As long as children remain unvaccinated, if and when it arrives in Nova Scotia there’s potential for it to spread very rapidly among them as well, just like Delta has spread,” she said.
“We do have every reason to expect that the vaccines we have will offer protection, certainly against severe disease. The very early evidence shows that there may be more potential for infection in fully vaccinated people, but what’s been reported so far as symptoms are mild.”
Top said the expectation is the COVID-19 vaccine would still offer protection against severe disease, which would protect children against outcomes like multisystem inflammatory syndrome.
“It’s very likely that it will at least reduce the chance of spread, even if it doesn’t eliminate it completely,” she said.
“Certainly it’ll be a few months before we would even have a new vaccine targeted against the Omicron variant if that’s something that’s going to be needed. And that’s a few more months where those kids are more vulnerable to COVID from Delta or Omicron or any other variant.”
The COVID-19 Immunity Task Force commentary also notes the vaccines have been well tolerated by children between the ages of five and 11, and the reported adverse events (AEFIs) were consistent with vaccinations for other diseases.
“In addition, the percentage of 5–11-year-olds who developed a systemic AEFI was lower than the percentage reported in the 16-25-year-old group,” the authors wrote.
The researchers also address the issue of increased chances of myocarditis/pericarditis from COVID-19 infections versus vaccination. According to the review:
Cases of myocarditis/pericarditis are seen most frequently in older adolescents, with lower rates in the 12-to-15 year age group. Therefore, the risk to children younger than 12 may be even lower. Further evidence indicates that symptoms related to vaccine-induced myocarditis/pericarditis resolve faster, without the use of additional medication to manage symptoms compared to myocarditis/pericarditis caused by COVID-19.