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Expert Q&A on COVID-19 vaccinations for healthy children

Dr Jonnie Cohen, who has expert advice about the COVID-19 vaccine.Dr Jonathan Cohen, consultant in paediatric infectious diseases, has written a Q&A to help parents make an informed choice over the COVID-19 vaccination for healthy children aged 5 and over.

Should my healthy child get the COVID-19 vaccine? 

Almost 2.5 million healthy 12 to 15 year olds across England have already taken up the offer of the COVID-19 vaccine. You might be asking yourself, “Why does my healthy child need it?” You may also be worried about the newness of the vaccine and the potential side effects.

As a parent myself, I know how much parenting in this pandemic has felt like one worry after another. But as an experienced doctor both in paediatrics and infectious diseases, I want to dispel some of the misinformation you might have heard and support you with the facts to make the best decision for you and your children.

While the vaccine is new, vaccinating is not

Vaccines are the most effective way to prevent infectious diseases. They prevent up to 3 million deaths worldwide every year. Since vaccines were introduced in the UK, diseases like smallpox, polio and tetanus have either gone or are seen very rarely. Other diseases like measles and diphtheria have been reduced by up to 99.9% since their vaccines were introduced. By the time they leave school, a child will have been offered vaccinations against 18 different diseases or infections to protect them.

The vaccine offers your child protection

COVID-19 is still circulating but even a single dose of the vaccine reduces the chance of catching the virus, and passing it on to others. Two doses gives even stronger and longer-lasting protection.

And while children do not usually get seriously ill with COVID-19, young people who catch it can spend several days feeling very unwell. A small proportion can develop a serious illness called PIMS-TS a few weeks after catching COVID-19, leading to hospital admission. Having the vaccine can reduce the chances of this quite significantly.

The vaccine has been approved by the UK’s medicines regulator

As well as understanding the benefits of the vaccine, you need to be reassured by the knowledge that it is safe. Like all other vaccines your child is offered throughout their life, the vaccine has been closely assessed by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), the UK independent body responsible for assessing medicine safety. They have concluded that not only is it safe in this age group, but it also very effective in protecting against COVID-19 infection. It has recommended that all young people aged 12 to 15 are offered first and second doses of the Pfizer vaccine, and a booster jab of Pfizer if they are considered high-risk or live with someone immunosuppressed.

All medicines have side effects

Even paracetamol has side effects. And the likely severity of the side effects felt from vaccination, far outweigh the potential side effects of getting COVID-19. Like adults, children may experience some discomfort in their arm in the day or two after vaccination. Around 10% will feel a bit more unwell for a day or two, perhaps with some aches and fever. This can be easily treated with painkillers and rest.

Exceptionally rarely, the vaccine can cause other side effects like myocarditis which is inflammation of the heart muscle — but your child is far more likely to develop this if they catch COVID-19 without being vaccinated. Millions of teenagers have now received the Pfizer vaccine around the world over many months, and we know with confidence how very rare any significant side effects have been reported. It is also reassuring to know that no previous licensed vaccines for this or other conditions has been reported to suddenly cause problems out of the blue years later.

Natural immunity is not enough

Even if your child has had COVID-19, it is important to still get them vaccinated. Vaccines prompt your immune system to respond in a more controlled way than compared to an infection. This avoids the severe damage the COVID-19 infection can sometimes cause and comes without the risk of passing the virus on to others. The immune response after COVID-19 infection is also variable, whereas the response to vaccines is generally strong and consistent.

Your child can get whichever dose they are due. However if your child has recently had COVID-19, they must wait 12 weeks after they first tested positive until they can receive the vaccination. Young people who are high risk can in some circumstances receive their jab four weeks afterwards, so if this applies to your family please speak to your GP.

The vaccine is our best line of defence and our best route back to normality

COVID-19 infection rates increased significantly in children in schools during term time. Without vaccination, this is expected to continue, leading to further loss of education, and children missing out on the things they love doing. It also exposes children to infection, and potentially spreads the virus to more vulnerable children and adults. 

In addition, COVID-19 has adversely affected the social and mental health of children and young people for over 18 months. The vaccine is important in maintaining children’s physical health and, more importantly, it is our best chance of returning to the social normality they need.

To find out more about our family-friendly vaccination centres, please take a look at our dedicated advice page on COVID-19 vaccinations.