When the Government of Alberta announced that parents could book COVID-19 vaccination appointments for kids aged 12 to 15 in early May, Kerrianne Kusch didn’t waste a second. She logged on right at 8 a.m. the day registration opened. “I kept refreshing and refreshing my screen,” says the Calgary mom of three boys, whose background is in health care.
A week later, her 12-year-old son, Owen, had received his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Other than a sore arm at the injection site and a slight fever, he was no worse for wear.
“He was super excited to get vaccinated,” says Kusch, who received her first AstraZeneca COVID-19 shot in April. “I’m a big proponent for vaccines. We want to see our family again. We want to go back to Saskatchewan and stay at the family cabin and have the boys see their cousins this summer.”
Canada was the first country to approve the Pfizer vaccine in adolescents aged 12 to 15 on May 5, and the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) recommended its use for that age group on May 18, opening the door to immunizing youth against the virus that causes COVID-19.
In most parts of Canada—Ontario, Alberta, B.C., Manitoba, Quebec, Newfoundland, PEI, Saskatchewan and the Northwest Territories—parents have already begun booking appointments for youth. The Yukon says it plans to vaccinate teens in June. At press time, information about Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Nunavut was unavailable.
The vaccine is safe and effective in this age group
Not all parents are as eager as Kusch to roll up their teens’ sleeves, however. With such a speedy vaccine rollout, some have questions about its safety and efficacy.
“The main concern is this whole issue of what is perceived to be the newness of the vaccine, in particular in children because they’re still developing and they’re still growing,” says Marie Tarrant, a professor in the School of Nursing at UBC Okanagan, whose area of study is childhood vaccine education and promotion.
“Looking at vaccine development technology, we’ve had a lot of new vaccines rolled out over the last 20, 30, 40 years. What we see is that the adverse events happen within the first month or two—if there are adverse events,” she says. “The [Pfizer] vaccine has been in clinical trials for almost a year, and it’s been mass administered over the last six months. It is a very safe vaccine.”
Pfizer enrolled 2,260 adolescents 12 to 15 years of age in the United States in a trial to test the vaccine in this age group. The results, released in March, showed 100-percent effectiveness in the vaccinated group—an even higher immune response than seen in adults. Additionally, youth were included in the original Phase 3 trial for the vaccine that tested efficacy in adults, but there weren’t enough 12- to 15-year-olds to make a full recommendation initially, says Craig Jenne, an infectious disease expert and researcher at the University of Calgary Cumming School of Medicine, and a Canada Research Chair.
Kids just have a more robust immune system than adults, says Jenne, which is why the COVID-19 vaccine provides even better protection in the 12 to 15 age group.
As for the perceived “fast-tracking” of the shot, Jenne says the urgency of ending the pandemic drastically shortened the time it takes to fundraise and research a new vaccine. What companies didn’t shorten was the safety window—the shot still went through thorough trials like every other vaccine that comes to market.
“We do know that [COVID vaccines] meet all safety standards and in fact they have more people in these studies than we normally use, so we’re quite confident in them,” says Jenne.
What are the vaccine’s side effects in adolescents?
Even though youth have a more robust immune response to the vaccine than adults, this has not translated into worse short-term side effects. “What we’re seeing is actually exactly the same side effects as in adults—soreness at the injection site, redness, tiredness, sometimes some joint aching, maybe a fever,” says Jenne.
Calgary dad Kyle Peck had his 12-year-old son vaccinated in mid-May, and his left arm where he got the shot was slightly tender for a day. Peck had been hesitant to get himself or his son vaccinated—the family typically skips the flu shot—but he decided it was the right thing to do given Alberta’s deteriorating COVID-19 situation at the time.
Do kids truly need the vaccine?
If we want to end the pandemic—or even just return to regular, in-person school in the fall—experts says vaccinating kids is key. “If we want to get back to normal school activities, it’s important that they get vaccinated,” says Tarrant.
Getting back to normal life was a big reason Dayna Sutherland* got her 14-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter vaccinated in Calgary as soon as they were eligible. “Being away from school, sports and their friends has taken a huge toll on their mental health,” says the mom of two. “I think the kids just really want this all to be over and were willing to do anything they could to get that sooner.”
Vaccinating youth will also protect them from the virus that causes COVID-19, says Jenne. Although adolescents tend to have less severe illness than adults, they do still get sick from it—children and teens in Canada have died from COVID-19, and there are currently kids in hospital with it.
What’s more, they can spread the virus. “This group is able to transmit the disease to people that are more at risk. So we do see them picking up the disease in the household and then transmitting it to grandparents or to other groups that may not have been vaccinated, so that’s another big concern,” says Jenne.
Vaccination effectively neutralizes their ability to get other people sick.
Should any adolescents avoid the vaccine?
Vaccination may not be for everyone. If your teen has an underlying immune condition or severe allergies, Jenne recommends talking to your doctor. “That’s an individual-level decision based on personal history and that really should be discussed with your primary care provider,” he says.
When will babies and children under 12 be able to get vaccinated?
Pfizer is currently testing the vaccine on children 6 months to 11 years old, and the company expects to have data on its safety and effectiveness in that age group by September 2021. Health Canada will then review the data to make sure it meets Canadian safety standards before approving its use on young kids, says Jenne.
“We may see vaccines rolling out at the end of 2021 or perhaps early 2022 for those younger age groups, depending on the results,” he says. “We don’t want to put the cart ahead of the horse here—we need to make sure it works, and more critically, we need to make sure it’s safe, before we approve it.”
When that day comes, Kerrianne Kusch plans to get her two youngest boys, aged 10 and seven, vaccinated right away.
*Name changed for privacy