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Q&A: Local pediatrician answers common questions surrounding Pfizer vaccine in children

Now that the CDC gave the go-ahead for the Pfizer vaccine in children as young as 12, parents have the final say on whether or not to vaccinate their child.

TYLER, Texas — While the Pfizer vaccine is now approved for children as young as 12, the final approval on whether or not children get the vaccine really comes from parents.

CBS19's Marangeli Lopez spoke to Doctor Valerie Smith, a pediatrician at St. Paul Children's Services in Tyler, who serves as a physician on the Texas Medical Association's COVID-19 Task Force.

Question: What do you do on the Texas Medical Association's Task Force?

Answer: "So the Texas Medical Association and COVID-19 Task Force is a group of physicians from across Texas. So I represent East Texas as well as the pediatric perspective. We review the most important and up-to-date information about COVID-19 across the country, and specifically what's happening in Texas. We also help educate other physicians about COVID-19."

Question: What do we know about the vaccine and how this affects children ages 12-15.

Answer: "So the vaccine that has been approved for 12 to 15-year-olds is the Pfizer vaccine, it's one of the mRNA vaccines. So it helps instruct your body to make an antibody against one of the really important spike proteins on the COVID-19 virus. It works the same way in teenagers as it does in adults. But when they started doing the original studies on it, they just were studying adults. So then once it was approved for adults are actually, as they were gaining that approval for adults. Pfizer started testing on teenagers as well. And so they now have studied a large number of children who are 12 to 15 and feel comfortable with sharing that data with the FDA."

Question: What are some of the health benefits that the vaccine could have when vaccinating children?

Answer: "So I think it's important to recognize that kids can have a couple of different influences on how we think about COVID. The first one is that kids and in particular, teenagers can get COVID. And while we've been really fortunate that most children and teenagers with COVID have had relatively mild disease, some of them will have really severe disease, and we have had some teenage deaths due to COVID. And so that's one important reason to consider vaccinating your child is to help protect them. The other piece to that is we do know that children, especially teenagers can spread COVID. Teenagers appear to spread COVID as much as adults do, whereas younger children don't seem to spread it as much. And so if we want to think about how to kind of reopen our world, and how to help people be able to safely go places and travel and have large activities again, one of the key things is to vaccinate children and teenagers to help prevent the spread of the disease."

Question: Some parents are hearing on social media that the vaccine may have a long-term impact on fertility and since many kids reach puberty between the ages of 12 and 15, how can a parent be sure without that COVID-19 vaccine is not going to affect their development?

Answer: "There is no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccines that have been approved by the FDA to this point affect fertility. There has been a large misconception about these mRNA vaccines. And one of those misconceptions is that this is gene therapy, which it simply is not. It does nothing to affect your genes, but that is caused a lot of that rumor has caused a lot of confusion and concern. These vaccines, again, don't affect or change the DNA in your body. Another concern that I've heard is that people who have been vaccinated might shed these vaccines and cause harm to people that they are coming into contact with. That's also not true. 

Question: What are some of the expected side effects of the vaccine in children? And are they going to be severe enough to cause a child to miss class or possibly endanger their grades?

Answer: "Yes, that's a really good question. I will say we are heading into summer, so we're actually getting ready to kind of open up vaccination to kids in a time where they're not going to be going to school. So that actually might be a really great time to think about vaccinating. But the side effects that have been seen in the trials with teenagers are very similar to the side effects with adults. Soreness in the arm right after they receive the vaccine is the most common side effect. Other side effects include headache, fatigue, or tiredness. About 20% of the kids who were in the Pfizer study did report that they were significantly tired the day after they got their shots. So not that day, they got their shot, necessarily, but that next 24 hours or so, where they didn't feel like doing as much as they usually do. That doesn't necessarily mean they couldn't go to school. But, I do think that thinking about when you time your vaccine is really helpful."

Question: "What do we know about the dosages for children? Are they going to be less than what's given to adults since children are usually smaller? 

Answer: "The dosages that have been approved are the same as for the adults. I get that there is a huge difference sometimes physically in a 12-year-old and a 28-year-old, but I would remind parents to think about the tetanus vaccine, the vaccine that their children get all the time. So the tetanus vaccine you get when you're 11 is the same one you get when you're 18 is the same one, which you should get every seven to 10 years as an adult. And the same is true for the flu vaccine. It's not uncommon within the realm of vaccines for us to have the same dose over a wide range of ages.

Question: What if the child has already had COVID? Doesn't that already, you know, improve their immunity? 

Answer: "Having COVID does provide you with some immunity for a period of time. And that's why, in general, if you've had COVID, in the last three months, it's considered okay to wait to get your vaccine. We don't know how long that natural immunity lasts. We have seen cases of people get re-infected with COVID. So, we do know that it's not a permanent immunity. Also, if you had the original strain of COVID-19, that's not the predominant strain right now. And it does look like for the most part, these vaccines provide good protection against the variants that we're seeing.

Question: Is there really enough research? How long did they conduct this research? And is it really safe?

Answer: "While COVID-19 has only been around a little bit over a year, the research that went into the technology of how to build these vaccines has been a decade's long process. It's not as if we started from scratch last February when they identified the COVID-19 virus and started doing this work in the United States. So it's really building on decades of technology, and vaccine development, and then tailoring it to this one specific virus. The other thing, too, is that we did speed up the process in order to provide the vaccine faster to the public but no steps were skipped. It just happened in a little bit faster period of time. Another thing to note is that Pfizer actually has applied to the FDA for full approval, so they have enough data and information now, not just for an emergency use authorization, but to receive a full FDA approval.

Question: If the risks to kids are not high, then is the benefit enough to consider whether they should vaccinate their own child or not?

Answer: "I would really encourage parents, if they have those questions, to reach out to their child's pediatrician, to have that conversation, because every kid is every family is different. So if you have a family member in your home, who's high risk who's immunocompromised, or who's older, or who has a chronic lung disease, the risk of that child, you know, if a child bringing COVID into the home, may be a lot higher than if you don't have anybody at risk. In the State of Texas, 25% of our population is below the age of 18. If we want to get to herd immunity, teenagers and children are going to have to be a part of that solution.

Question: Will you be providing vaccines for children at the St. Paul's Children's Services clinic?

Answer: "We are hoping to administer the Pfizer vaccine here, as soon as we can receive some from the Department of State Health Services. From a clinic standpoint, we don't have a ship date yet. But, I'm eagerly awaiting one and I will say I have a 13-year-old and a 15-year-old so this is not just work for me. This is part of the decision-making process that my family is going through as well. And we are very eager to get them vaccinated."