CDC Debates: Should All American School Children Get Vaccinated Against COVID-19?
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Should All School-Age Children in the United States Receive Pfizer’s Pediatric COVID-19 Vaccine? That’s the question before an influential government advisory group on Tuesday.
The Food and Drug Administration has cleared the emergency use of pediatric doses for children ages 5 to 11. But the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention must also sign before the start of generalized vaccinations in this age group.
CDC advisers are weighing who will derive the most benefit as they deliberate whether to recommend injections for up to 28 million more children, or perhaps just those most vulnerable to serious illness. Their recommendation goes to the director of the CDC, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, for the last word.
“Today is a monumental day during this pandemic,” Walensky told the advisory committee Tuesday.
She said that while the risk of serious illness and death is lower in young children than in adults, it is real – and that COVID-19 has had a profound social, mental and educational impact on young people, including including growing disparities in learning.
“There are second-graders who never had a normal school year,” Walensky said. “Pediatric immunization has the power to help us change all of that. “
The gunfire could begin this week, as Pfizer is already packing and shipping the first orders, millions of doses, to states and pharmacies to be ready.
Doctors who have treated hospitalized young people are hoping parents will embrace Pfizer’s children’s vaccines, saying they are safe and far better than betting a child will escape a coronavirus infection.
“I saw a lot of children in this age group who were seriously ill,” said Dr. Matthew Linam, infectious disease specialist at Children’s Healthcare in Atlanta. “The risk of significant infection is still very real in this population.”
There have been more than 8,300 hospitalizations of children aged 5 to 11, about a third requiring intensive care, according to government data. The CDC has recorded at least 94 deaths in this age group.
And while the United States has seen a recent drop in COVID-19 cases, experts worry about a further increase in vacation travel and as winter sends more activity indoors where it is easier for the coronavirus to spread.
Pfizer children’s injections contain one-third of the vaccine dose that has already been used to immunize millions of people 12 years of age and older. Children 5 to 11 years old will receive two injections, three weeks apart, at the same schedule as everyone else, but a smaller amount with each injection, using a smaller needle.
A study of 2,268 young people found that the child-sized vaccine was nearly 91% effective in preventing symptoms of COVID-19 – based on 16 diagnoses among children who received dummy injections, against only three who received the real vaccine.
The FDA has examined more children, a total of 3,100 who have been vaccinated, concluding that the injections are safe. Younger children have had similar or fewer reactions – such as arm pain, fever, or body aches – than adolescents or young adults after larger doses.
This study was not large enough to detect extremely rare side effects, such as heart inflammation that occasionally occurs after the second full dose, mostly in young men and adolescents. The FDA ultimately decided that the benefits of vaccination outweighed the potential that young children receiving a lower dose could also experience this rare risk.
The FDA decision came after its own advisers questioned whether every young child needs a vaccine – a key issue in Tuesday’s deliberations as well. Young people hospitalized with COVID-19 are more likely to have high-risk conditions such as obesity or diabetes – but otherwise healthy children can also become seriously ill.
And many pediatricians and parents have called for protection for young people so they can resume normal childhood activities without risking their own health – or the fear of bringing the virus home to a more vulnerable family member.
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