January 2022

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Dr. Emmanuel Walter on COVID-19 Vaccines and Kids

Excerpts from our conversation with Dr. Emmanuel “Chip” Walter, chief medical officer at the Duke Human Vaccine Institute, who led the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine trial in children ages 5 to 12. 

NIHNiH: Why is it important to vaccinate children against COVID-19?

Walter: There are multiple reasons for children to get vaccinated against COVID. The most important one being that it’s the best way to protect your child’s health. Getting the vaccine protects them from severe illness due to COVID. Certainly, COVID disproportionately affects older adults and adults with underlying conditions. That said, children can also be severely affected by COVID. The number of deaths due to COVID to date in children are about seven times the number of deaths due to influenza seen during a typical flu season.

NIHNiH: Don’t most children only have mild COVID-19 cases?

Walter: True. Though many children have mild illness sometimes they can become quite ill. Certainly, children with underlying health conditions are probably more at risk. But there are also those children that are healthy kids who get severe illness as well. There also is a condition in children called multi-system inflammatory syndrome in childhood (MIS-C). This typically occurs after a child has had COVID, where, basically, they can get inflammationHeat, swelling, and redness caused by the body’s protective response to injury or infection. in a number of organs in their body, including their heart, lungs, kidneys, GI  tract, and their brain. Those children often end up being hospitalized and are frequently very sick. There have been a number of deaths from MIS-C. So, the vaccine first and foremost protects the health of children.

NIHNiH: What are other reasons it’s important to vaccinate your child?

Walter: Children make up a significant proportion of the population. And to achieve community levels of protection as high as we think they need to be to get herd immunity for protection from COVID, you need to vaccinate about 85% of the population. Children make up 20% of the population which creates a significant gap if they remain unvaccinated. 

Another really important reason to vaccinate is to allow them to do all the activities that they would like to do. These include schooling and sports activities, after-school activities, and social functions. A lot of them have been denied from doing these for the past year and a half. So, it’s as much for their mental health and well-being as their physical health.

NIHNiH: During flu season, what would your advice be to parents if their child wakes up with a fever and a cough?

Walter: It’s going to become difficult during flu season to tell flu apart from COVID, because they can both present very similarly–with fever and a cough being predominant symptoms for both. The best advice would be, first, get your children vaccinated to protect them from both flu and from COVID.

Those five and over are eligible for COVID vaccination currently. Children six months and older can get a flu vaccination. Get your child vaccinated to protect them. It significantly reduces the chance that they’ll be infected by either of those viruses. If they do develop symptoms, it’s probably best to get them tested for COVID-19 and for flu.