Mayo Clinic pediatric experts met on Wednesday, April 14, to discuss some questions that parents have surrounding COVID-19 vaccines for children under the age of 16.

Dr. Nipunie Rajapakse, pediatric infectious diseases expert at Mayo Clinic, and Dr. Joseph Poterucha, pediatric critical care specialist at Mayo Clinic Health System in La Crosse, led the discussion.

If children tend to be less likely to develop severe illnesses from COVID-19, why do we need to vaccinate them?

“While there have been relatively few, as compared to adults than children, who have needed to be hospitalized or who have died from this infection, there have been children who have died, over 300 in this country alone,” Rajapakse said. 

“It is also important and why we want to get as much of our community vaccinated as possible, is to achieve this concept that people may have heard about called herd immunity or community immunity. This refers to having enough people in a community who are immune to the infection, either by having the infection itself or providing vaccinations against it, that it really makes it difficult for the virus to spread from one person to another,” the doctor added.

Since vaccines aren’t expected to be ready for children until 2022, what are your thoughts on the safety of school openings throughout the fall of 2021?

“We're all really hopeful that for the older age groups that are 12 to 15, we will be able to have many of them vaccinated through the summer and before we started the new school year,” Rajapakse said. “I think the more kids in schools who are vaccinated, the safer the school community overall will be, but we do know that there are ways to reopen schools and make in-person learning safer using a variety of the methods that we have recommended for everyone over the course of the pandemic.”

Do pregnant and breastfeeding women pass antibody protection to their babies?

“The initial Pfizer and Moderna trials that were done in healthy adults purposefully excluded pregnant women, however, there were some women who became pregnant after enrollment of the trial or were determined to be pregnant,” Rajapakse said. “The data on those small numbers did not raise any concerns for any harmful effects of the vaccine on the women themselves or on their babies. … Now in the last few weeks we have started to see some studies that have demonstrated that antibodies are present in great robust high levels, both in umbilical cord blood and in breast milk, which leads us to believe that some of that protection that these pregnant women are deriving for themselves is also being passed on to their newborns.”

What information can you provide for parents who are worried to give their children the vaccine?

“We all have fears as parents …  and this recent study into the Pfizer vaccine is that it's safe and it's effective,” Poterucha said. “A lot of the reactions you might be worried about that may typically manifest in the six weeks after vaccination are not happening. It's been nine months now and we're seeing good safety data, no concerns with delayed sort of autoimmune processes or delayed immunization reaction so we know that it's safe.”

Why were vaccines approved for adults and not children yet? 

“The reason the vaccines have been approved for the age groups that they're currently approved in is because those were the age groups that were enrolled in the clinical trials that were performed,” Rajapakse said. “Young children, especially those under 2 years of age, their immune systems seem to recognize certain components better than others so we know that their immune systems don't recognize sugar molecules, for example, as well as protein molecules. As we get older and older certain parts of our immune system specifically, our T-cells and our lymphocytes, also kind of seem to overtime lose their ability to respond to certain types of stimuli or antigens, so that's why we need to be careful and do these studies in these different age groups.”

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