Children and adolescents have disproportionately suffered the social consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic: The loss of contact with relatives, friends and classmates, and the difficulties of managing unfamiliar or overwhelming feelings about their changed lives. We are just starting to appreciate the toll this has taken in terms of children’s learning, social behavior and mental health.
In addition to psychological and behavioral effects, a relatively small percentage of youths that become infected with COVID-19 may also develop the medical condition called MIS-C (Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children), which causes severe and life-threatening problems several weeks after viral infection. At Seattle Children’s, we have cared for more than 25 children with MIS-C in the pediatric intensive care unit over the past year.
In general, this disease is very serious. Mortality rates are relatively low overall, although there are documented deaths in children due to this serious condition. With MIS-C, the common findings include respiratory problems but also heart problems and frequently low blood pressure, which is bad because one needs sufficient blood pressure to send oxygenated blood to the kidneys, liver and brain. We know how devastating this disease can be to our young patients and their families. The long-term impact of MIS-C and COVID-19 in children remains unknown.
As of May 10, children ages 12 to 15 in the United States can be protected against the disease and prevented from transmitting the virus to others by becoming vaccinated. I truly believe parents who have children in this age range should discuss vaccines with their children and get them vaccinated against COVID-19 as soon as possible.
Globally, more than 650 million adults have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine as of May 11. The vaccine’s safety and effectiveness have been well-established. These COVID-19 vaccines prevent serious disease, hospitalization and death. People who are fully immunized are also much less likely to transmit the virus to others. Moreover, early studies of COVID-19 vaccines in those between 12 and 15 years of age have demonstrated even better levels of antibody production, or virus-fighting capability, than adults.
More than 50 years ago, polio was a widespread disease that mainly affected children. Time magazine reported extraordinary demand among parents for the polio vaccine after it became available. We would hope for the same demand today among parents who seek to keep their adolescent and teenage children safe from a modern-day pandemic.
Short-term reactions associated with receiving the vaccine, such as pain, fatigue, and fever have been documented and widely reported. As with adults, children and adolescents must understand these reactions can happen and generally resolve within a day or two.
Studies will soon be starting in younger children across the world, including Seattle, to show the safety and ability to produce protection in children. We will be evaluating vaccine reactions and antibody production in children starting at age 5-11 years, and then down to the ages of 6 months. We must support these studies in children so that we can get vaccines approved by the FDA and let our children return to school and other activities. Both children and adults want to return to the important things in life — spending time with friends, participating in sports, music and other activities — and planning for the future without the worry of getting COVID-19 or spreading it to others.
Children and adults are tired of this pandemic. As one of our potential pediatric volunteers recently told me, “I want to participate in a vaccine trial to help other kids take a step toward normality, and for me to also take a small step toward normality.”
Vaccines are the answer to start getting our lives back to normal.