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Teens and vaccines: What to know before heading back to school

Girl student wearing mask at school
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Back-to-school is already a time of adjustment for many students and families.

This year, the added weight of masking, social distancing and vaccinations is hovering over many students and – by extension – local districts who are investigating what protocols will be appropriate for the upcoming school year.

As vaccine trials for younger audiences are underway across the country, pediatricians and school districts alike are recommending students check in with their pediatricians to find out what is needed before the start of the new school year.

Vaccine progress

About a month ago, Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for use in individuals ages 12-17 was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). 

The CDC recommends that everyone  age 12 and older obtain a COVID-19 vaccination. Moderna filed for the same permissions with the FDA for their own COVID-19 vaccine on June 10.

As of now, children age 12 and older are only able to get the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, which consists of two shots administered 21 days apart.

According to Pfizer, vaccination trials are underway in the Sacramento area to test effectiveness in children ages 5-11 with 10 micrograms per dose, equal to one-third of the teen/adult vaccine, administered in two injections scheduled three weeks apart.

A doctor’s recommendations

According to Dr. Hong Frankel, a pediatrician at SSM Health Outpatient Center in St. Charles, one of the biggest questions she has received from parents regarding the COVID-19 vaccine are regarding the potential side effects.

According to Frankel, side effects experienced by teens tend to mirror or be less than the same symptoms experienced by vaccinated adults.

“They get chills, headaches and body aches for about a day, similar to grown-ups,” Frankel said.

With more vaccine opportunities on the horizon, Frankel said that families or adolescents nervous about choosing a COVID-19 vaccine can use their own family symptom experiences in deciding when to get vaccinated or what vaccine to receive.

“Normally, we recommend the children get the same vaccine that their parents have gotten,” Frankel said. “Say a mother got Pfizer and felt fine, they probably want their child to get Pfizer because their mother did well.”

However, Frankel did state CDC has received some reports of inflammation in the heart, including myocarditis and pericarditis, in adolescents and young adults after COVID-19 vaccination.

According to  the CDC, the known and potential benefits of the COVID-19 vaccination outweigh the known and potential risks, including the possible risk of myocarditis. Frankel said this side effect seems to be mainly seen in younger males with preexisting heart concerns. 

While the COVID-19 vaccine remains prominent in the minds of many, Frankel said families should also make sure adolescents and teens still receive their routine immunizations.

Normally, during the adolescent to teenage years, patients are due for immunization against tetanus, whooping cough, meningitis and HPV.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services has already published its list of required immunizations for the 2021-2022 school year, including tetanus and meningitis, among others. As per usual, religious and medical exemptions are allowed.

The meningitis vaccine should be administered once in adolescence, then again at age 16 or 17 depending on when the teen plans to go to college. Frankel said meningitis is an example of a condition that is more lethal than COVID-19 especially in a younger age group.

“Meningitis will kill you in 24 hours,” Frankel said. “ … By the time we catch it, most kids are already comatose. That’s why we really urge parents to seize the opportunity during summertime to have teens and all kids vaccinated (as age appropriate) against meningitis, tetanus, polio and measles. Those are a lot more common, and a lot more deadly, than COVID usually is in children.”

Frankel also reminded parents of the importance of maintaining good hygiene habits, such as regular hand-washing, to protect against illnesses like strep throat and stomach viruses, during the back-to-school season.

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