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7 reasons to be excited about COVID-19 vaccines for teens

7 reasons to be excited about COVID-19 vaccines for teens
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Vaccines to prevent COVID-19, targeting SARS-CoV-2, first became available to high-risk adults in December 2020. As the supply of vaccines increased throughout the spring of 2021, vaccinations became available to everyone over the age of 16. This week, the FDA extended the emergency use authorization of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to children age 12-15 years based on the results of Pfizer’s recent trial. Those of us who provide health care to children are enthusiastic about this opportunity to protect our patients from this illness, prevent viral transmission and help teens return to their normal activities.

Here’s are seven reasons why:

1) COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective

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The recent Pfizer trial involved 2,260 kids age 12-15. Of these, about half received the vaccine and half received a placebo. While zero cases of COVID-19 occurred in vaccinated teens, 18 cases of COVID-19 occurred in the teens who received a placebo. These data demonstrate that the vaccine was 100 percent effective at prevention of COVID-19 in teens in this trial. Teens had only mild side effects similar to those reported in young adults, including pain and redness at the injection site and sometimes headache or fever. Teens made antibodies to COVID-19 at levels at or superior to young adults after vaccination. 

2) COVID-19 causes adverse outcomes other than death

Older adults and those with comorbidities are more likely to be hospitalized and die from COVID-19 than healthy children — however, children can still suffer bad outcomes from COVID-19. While most children have asymptomatic or mild disease, over 300 children in this country have died of COVID-19 and more than 15, 000 have required hospitalization, including ICU admission. Some children develop symptoms of long-COVID, and some student-athletes can have damage to their hearts that require management and monitoring by pediatric cardiologists prior to a safe return to sports.

Children are also susceptible to multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) after COVID-19 exposure, a severe disease that can cause damage to the heart, kidneys or lungs, and require hospitalization. It’s not possible to predict ahead of time which children will have poor outcomes with COVID-19, so prevention is the best strategy.

3) The burden of disease has increased in children as adults have become vaccinated

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As more adults have been vaccinated this spring and many community mitigation efforts have been lifted, SARS-CoV-2 has continued to spread among those who are not vaccinated. This has resulted in kids representing an increasing percentage of new infections. For unvaccinated children, exposure to COVID-19 at school, after school activities, summer camps, etc. still requires a period of quarantine, which is disruptive to children and families. In contrast, fully vaccinated individuals are not required to quarantine after exposure to someone with COVID-19, or after travel.

4) Vaccinating an additional 17 million young teens will increase community immunity

Teens also interact with vulnerable community and family members, such as elderly grandparents, family members that may be immunocompromised or younger siblings who are not yet eligible for vaccination. Even when immunocompromised people are vaccinated, they may not respond strongly to the vaccination, leaving them still vulnerable. In these situations, vaccinating teens helps to “cocoon” the vulnerable community members by surrounding them with individuals who are protected from infection.

5) Vaccination allows teens the ability to safely return to activities

This pandemic has been difficult on everyone — physically and mentally. The loneliness of virtual school, cancelled extracurriculars and the inability to be with friends during this crucial time of developing independence has taken its toll on the mental health of teens. Disruption to routines, including school closures, have been associated with exacerbation of pediatric mental health disorders. 

While visits to emergency departments in general decreased during the pandemic, visits for mental health-associated complaints significantly increased. Masking and distancing have made school a safe environment with virtually no COVID-19 transmission. However, most transmissions between kids occur in athletic events or social gatherings, where masking and distancing are not maintained. Vaccinated individuals can be together, unmasked — even indoors — and be protected. Vaccinations will make teen sports and socializing much safer and allows for safer domestic travel and visits to restaurants.

6) COVID-19 vaccines create durable immunity

These vaccines are still relatively new but have been shown to have protection against COVID-19 for at least six months, which is longer than the expected three-month protection provided by natural infection. As we get closer to one year out from the vaccine trials last summer, more data will be forthcoming about immunity durability.

7) It’s important to include children in this kind of vaccine research

Children make up 24 percent of the population, but they represent 100 percent of our future. We owe it to children to evaluate the safety and efficacy of disease-preventing interventions, such as vaccination, so they may also be protected in a timely fashion.  Expansion of the COVID-19 vaccination to children age 12-15 is a huge step in that direction and we expect to see data in children as young as 6 months of age from Pfizer and Moderna in the coming months. Pediatricians will be excited about that, too.

Megan Culler Freeman, MD, Ph.D., is a pediatric infectious diseases fellow at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. She is also a virus researcher with expertise in RNA viruses, including enteroviruses and coronaviruses. Follow her on Twitter: @mcfreeID.