– Neil deGrasse Tyson
Q: I have a healthy 16-year-old son. Should he receive the COVID-19 vaccine, and is it safe?
A. This is a very common question from families with a very straightforward answer – yes.
Most people can safely receive the COVID-19 vaccination. Currently, there are two vaccines that have been approved under Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Both are messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccines.
Pfizer-BioNTech’s vaccine is available to those 16 years old and older. It is a two-dose series, given 21 days apart.
Moderna’s vaccine is available to those 18 years old and older. It is also a two-dose series, given 29 days apart.
Currently, both vaccines are undergoing trials in the U.S., enrolling kids as young as 12 to evaluate safety and effectiveness. Interestingly, some other vaccine manufacturers are including children as young as 5 in their trials in Europe.
The biggest contraindication to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine is having a personal history of an anaphylactic reaction (a severe allergic reaction) to a mRNA vaccine or to any component of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Otherwise, the vaccine is very safe and is producing an excellent response from the body’s immune system, demonstrating an almost 95% efficacy, or response rate, for both vaccines.
The most common side effects of receiving the vaccine are mild to moderate, and may include a localized reaction at the injection site (pain, redness, swelling), fatigue and headache. If experienced, these side effects may last one to two days.
A common concern regarding the COVID-19 vaccine is the speed with which it was produced. Typically, a new vaccine takes seven to 10 years to be produced, and must successfully pass through three phases to be approved. These phases are usually completed in succession.
Phase 1 must demonstrate safety; Phase 2 must prove that the vaccine evokes an immune response; and Phase 3 must show that the vaccine is effective on a large scale. This is an incredibly expensive process for a private vaccine manufacturer to undertake.
The COVID-19 vaccine was produced in under one year. This was a direct effect of scientists working diligently and around the clock, and the impact of federal funding from Operation Warp Speed.
Once the vaccine proved to be safe in Phase 1, it entered into Phase 2 trials. Due to initial results of the vaccine producing an immune response, it entered into Phase 3 trials while simultaneously continuing to complete Phase 2.
This overlap in completing Phases 2 and 3 significantly decreased the length of time required to prove the vaccine to be safe and effective. Of note, there are almost no safety issues that arise with a vaccine that is being studied after two months.
The technology used to produce the currently available mRNA COVID-19 vaccine has been in development since the 1990s.
It is not new, and it is not experimental. The vaccine works by injecting mRNA into the muscle where it is taken up into the cells. The mRNA is a blueprint for the spike protein found on the outer surface of the COVID-19 virus that allows it to attach to human cells. The spike protein cannot cause an infection, but enables our immune system to recognize the surface of the virus. The human cell uses the mRNA to produce and export the spike protein. The mRNA degrades quickly and is not incorporated into our own genes.
Our body’s immune system is then able to “see” this foreign spike protein and starts building protection against it. If our body is later exposed to the COVID-19 virus, our immune system is primed and ready to fight it off. The new variant strains of COVID, while not appearing to cause more severe illness or death, may spread more easily, but are unlikely to affect the effectiveness of the vaccine.
Anyone can register to receive a vaccine through the New Mexico Department of Health at cvvaccine.nmhealth.org. The department will contact you when you are able to make an appointment to receive the vaccine. Getting as many people as possible immunized is an important step in preventing illness and death, and in returning to a more normal way of life.
Teachers and school staff are essential and need to get immunized so our kids can return to in-person learning. The increase in depression, anxiety, obesity and lack of access to support services is significant for our kids and teens, and is likely to have a lasting negative impact. I would strongly encourage everyone who is interested to register to get vaccinated.
Melissa Mason is a general pediatrician with Journey Pediatrics in Albuquerque. Please send your questions to email@example.com.