Mayo pediatric infectious disease specialist addresses vaccines for young children  

Published 9:00 pm Tuesday, June 21, 2022

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Last Friday the Food and Drug Administration announced the COVID-19 Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines were now available for children over 6 months old.

Nipunie Rajapakse, pediatric infectious disease specialist at Mayo Clinic Children’s Center in Rochester. Provided

“For these vaccines against COVID, the approach that was taken during the pandemic was to most quickly or prioritize vaccination for the people who were at the highest risk of hospitalization and death,” said Nipunie Rajapakse, pediatric infectious disease specialist at Mayo Clinic Children’s Center in Rochester. “When we look at this pandemic, the highest risk group are adults, especially the elderly.”

Another reason a children’s vaccine wasn’t available sooner was because health officials wanted to be especially sure a vaccine would be safe and effective, something Rajapaske said took time.

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A recent survey found less than 20% of parents with children under 5 would vaccinate their children immediately.

“I think parents want to make the decision that is best for their child,” she said. “And I think the pandemic has been really difficult for parents and for families — I think especially for those with young kids.”

And she admitted that with anything new or different there would be questions parents could have, a fact she said was reasonable.

“There’s been a lot of kind of confusion, a lot of misinformation about vaccination out there,” she said. “I think any parent is cautious and careful about what they do with their children, and so I think the caution is not unexpected, but I do think these vaccines have been studied, looked at very carefully, they’ve been found to be safe and effective in the trials that were conducted.”

Rajapakse said she had seen families with questions and heard a lot of things about vaccinations at her clinic. One of those questions stems around how effective a vaccine would be for a child who already had the virus, while others had questions around side effects.                                                                                                                                         “Now that we’ve used both of these vaccines in higher doses in millions and millions of people across the world now, and so they really have been rolled out under one of the most intensive, safety-monitoring programs,” she said. “So we know that they are safe and effective and we now have 1.5-year-plus safety followup data of that as well, which we didn’t have when we initially introduced them.”

Most children’s vaccines available in other countries are designed for those 5 and older, and Rajapaske said one of the reasons this vaccine was introduced for children younger was because it was hard to predict which children could be most severely affected by the virus.

She said with young children there were other risks associated with contracting COVID-19.

“Many families are probably now familiar with Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome … which is a complication that can happen in children after they’ve had COVID infection, and we know that vaccination significantly reduces your risk of developing that complication as well,” she said.

The 6-months to 5-years group also has not been affected by long-COVID as the adolescent age group, but said there needed to be more research done with this group.

“Many of the kinds of symptoms that adults and teenagers with long-COVID have described are hard to identify in a young child,” she said. 

Those symptoms could include fatigue and difficulty in concentration.

She said children in the youngest age group can spread COVID to higher-risk groups, but by vaccinating them the risk of transmission decreases. And more importantly, vaccinating at a younger age could potentially help families return to a semblance of pre-pandemic life.

“Parents have missed a lot of work, there’s been interruptions in child care, day cares have had to close because of outbreaks and clusters of cases as well,” she said. “So if we can provide these children with some immunity in a safe way with vaccination, I think we’ll see a lot less of those types of interruptions.”