Your teen and vaccine: What parents want to know

Published: Sep 7, 2021
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As the Delta variant continues to take a heavy toll throughout Tampa Bay and beyond, parents may be thinking about vaccinating their children ages 12 and over – especially with school back in session. You’ll find answers to key questions below from some of Tampa General Hospital’s top experts:

  • Infectious disease specialist Dr. Patty Emmanuel, medical director of Pediatrics at TGH and chair of Pediatrics at the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine
  • Dr. Seetha Lakshmi, medical director for the TGH Global Emerging Diseases Institute, and assistant professor of Internal Medicine in the USF Health Morsani College of Medicine
  • Dr. Judette Louis, medical director of Women’s Health at TGH and chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology at USF Health Morsani College of Medicine

Q. If children are at lower risk from COVID-19, why should my kid get vaccinated?

A. Keep in mind that while deaths from COVID among children are low, there are cases where kids are winding up with long-term effects or permanent organ damage. Thanks to the Delta variant, almost 250 children under 18 are being hospitalized in the U.S. each day. More than 4,400 children have been hospitalized for a rare complication of the virus which impacts the heart called multi-system inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C. COVID-19 has killed 10 children under 16 in Florida, and a 16-year-old in Jacksonville with no pre-existing conditions recently died.  While the risk of serious illness for each child is low, vaccination also lowers the risk of milder illness, quarantines and missed school. Many school districts are requiring quarantines for unvaccinated students exposed to the virus, while vaccinated students can remain in school.   

Q. So what’s a greater risk, the vaccine or the virus?

A. “One needs to compare the known risk of COVID-19 infection with the risk of COVID vaccination,” Emmanuel says. “While the risk to a child of getting serious COVID disease is low, it is not zero.  The risk of complications from COVID and MIS-C (the complication of multisystem inflammation that impacts the heart) is at least tenfold greater than the risk of any serious complication from the vaccine.” We are now seeing greater numbers of children being hospitalized across Florida. “We don’t have enough data yet about the Delta strain, but we are concerned that this variant causes more significant disease in children,” she says.

Q. Does vaccinating my child affect my family and my community?

A. When teens get vaccinated, it helps protect more vulnerable people, such as those with medical conditions which make vaccines less effective, and children under 12, who can’t yet get vaccinated. We know that children can transmit this virus to household members and others.

Q. How does the COVID vaccine work?

A. Your body fights infection by recognizing germs as dangerous and summoning white blood cells to fight them off.  Vaccines against COVID work by teaching your immune system to immediately recognize COVID as a threat. The most widely used type of COVID vaccine, the mRNA vaccine, gives your cells instructions to make a piece of protein, called the “spike protein,” that is found on the surface of the COVID-19 virus. Your cells make those copies and then destroy the instructions from the vaccine. Then your body recognizes that the protein shouldn’t be there and builds memory cells that will recognize and fight COVID-19 if you are infected in the future.

Q. How much do we really know about this vaccine when it’s so new?

A. Researchers have been working on development of mRNA vaccines for over a decade, studying how they could fight the flu, rabies, and many types of cancer. Further, Emmanuel points out, advances in computing and genetic science have made it easier to do such research more quickly. “We can look up anything instantly on our smartphones,” she says. “We wouldn’t mistrust them because they are too fast or do too much.” It’s the same with the COVID-19 vaccine – built from data and computing and all the many advances that made it possible.

Q. Are there long-term risks to the vaccine?

A. This is unlikely. “The beauty of the mRNA vaccine is that mRNA does not go into your cell nucleus and doesn’t incorporate in your DNA or become part of your body,” Emmanuel says. Ultimately, getting the vaccine comes down to trust. “If it helps, every one of the physicians and nurses I know has gotten their age-eligible children vaccinated,” she says.

Q. I’ve heard about the reports that young people have gotten myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, after getting vaccinated. Is this a risk for my child?

A. Recent data from the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices points to a clear benefit of the vaccine. In 674 confirmed myocarditis cases after vaccinating more than 11 million young adults, young males have gotten the condition after the second vaccine dose, but the cases were very mild, no prescription medicine was required, and no fatalities have resulted. “For every million doses of vaccine given to adolescents, we prevent 215 admissions, 71 ICU admissions and two deaths in this age group, compared to 56 cases of mild myocarditis,” Lakshmi says. “As an infectious disease doctor, I can tell you that when you let the virus loose and it causes myocarditis, it is way more severe than the vaccine causing myocarditis – to the extent that young people can get heart failure.”

Q. What about internet posts that say vaccines could endanger my child’s future fertility?

A. These claims have been widely discredited and have no basis in science. “All the evidence we have indicates that the vaccine does not reduce the ability to get pregnant,” Louis says. “In fact, it is one way to protect yourself from infection and the long-term effects of COVID-19 so that you can remain healthy as you try to get pregnant.”

Q. Could the COVID-19 vaccine give me or my child coronavirus? 

A. No. None of the commercially available vaccines available in the United States (Pfizer, Moderna, J&J/Janssen) contain the live virus that causes COVID-19. It is impossible to get COVID-19 from a vaccine.

Q. My teen already had COVID. Should they still get vaccinated?

A. Yes. Scientists aren’t sure how long the antibodies from COVID provide protection from getting the virus again. Also, research shows that the vaccine may help your immune system respond to the virus by boosting your natural immunity. Studies show that people who have recovered from COVID and then receive the vaccine have higher levels of antibodies. Another study showed that unvaccinated people who have recovered from COVID-19 are more than twice as likely as fully vaccinated people to get COVID-19 again.

Q. Where can I find reliable information about COVID-19 and the vaccine?

A. Start by talking with your pediatrician. “Vaccines are the greatest achievement of the past century, and have lengthened our life span,” Emmanuel says. “There is a lot of misinformation out there, so trust your pediatrician or doctor. Have a conversation with them. They’ve been vaccinated and want you to be vaccinated.” You also can visit www.healthychildren.org, a website run by the American Academy of Pediatrics, for accurate information.