By Dr Jonathan Cohen, Consultant in Paediatric Infectious Diseases, Evelina London Children’s Hospital, Westminster (part of Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust).
Almost 2.5 million healthy 12–15-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.
Whilst 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 that used to kill or disable millions of people are either gone or 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 becoming infected with COVID-19 and passing the infection on to others. Two doses gives even stronger and longer-lasting protection. And whilst children do not usually get seriously ill with COVID-19, young people who catch it can spend several days feeling very unwell and even risk developing Long Covid, which we still know reasonably little about. A small proportion can develop a
serious illness called PIMS-TS a few weeks after catching Covid, 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 that it is safe in this
age group, but it also very effective in protecting against COVID-19 infection, and
has recommended that all 12-15s 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
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 the arm in the day or two after
vaccination. Around 10 per cent will feel a bit more unwell for a day or two, perhaps
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
infection. This avoids the severe damage infection with Covid-19 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, from 12 weeks after they first tested
positive for COVID-19. Young people who are high risk, can in some circumstances
receive their booster jab 4 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, as well as
exposing children to infection and potentially spreading 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.
For more information about the COVID-19 vaccination and how to book your child’s
appointment visit the NHS website pages on 12-15 year old vaccination.
Dr Jonathon Cohen is a consultant in Paediatric Infectious Diseases at the Evelina London