A letter from Dr. Jill Henning about vaccinations in children aged 12 and up

Previously, the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine was only approved for ages 16 and up (Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are approved for 18 and up). But now, the FDA has expanded the use of the Pfizer vaccine to include adolescents 12-15 years old, a recommendation seconded by the CDC. This is wonderful news! Our children are the lights of our lives.  We would do anything to keep them safe from physical, emotional, or infectious harm.  I understand that you have questions.  That is a good thing.  Healthy curiosity and skepticism is important in all scientific inquiries.  This vaccine is no different.

Please know this — the delivery system that is used in the Pfizer vaccine, how the mRNA gets to your cells, has been used in children for a decade.  (https://www.nature.com/articles/nrd.2017.243/tables/3)

In addition to this, mRNA itself doesn’t stay in the body.  It gets recognized and destroyed within hours to a day.  It does not incorporate into our DNA.  The movement of genetic material in our cells is one way, DNA to RNA to proteins.  It cannot go the other way in our cells.  Think of it like this — if you are baking cookies, you can’t get the paper that has the recipe out of the ingredients you put in the bowl.  Furthermore, you can’t get the recipe from the cookies either, but you can enjoy the benefits of eating one.  

The vaccine is the same!  If you choose vaccination for your child aged 12 or older, you can reap the benefits of it.  COVID-19 is in the top 10% of deaths among children in the USA. (https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid_weekly/index.htm).  There were 42,429 deaths from all causes among ages 0-17 from 2020-21.  Of those deaths, 282 were confirmed COVID-19 deaths, while 1,116 were pneumonia, influenza, or COVID-19 — this is a total of 1,398 deaths that were caused by or contributed to by COVID-19.  That is 1,398 too many — and now, we have the power to stop this because science shows that the Pfizer vaccine is 100% effective at preventing serious COVID-19 in children ages 12-16.

You may be concerned about the safety of the Pfizer mRNA vaccine.  The mRNA vaccines are safer than ANY other vaccine we already give our children.  These vaccines have been extensively studied.  The reason they were released so quickly is because scientists performed each step simultaneously instead of sequentially.  This allowed the whole process to move faster.  Think of it like this — in a NASCAR race the mechanics change all tires at the same time to get the racecar back on the track.  It’s fast and efficient, but clearly safe or the driver would wreck.  Science took a page from NASCAR!

I know it’s hard.  For us it’s one thing, but our kids…I get it. Here is my biggest concern.  I am concerned that if enough adults don’t get vaccinated, the virus will move to our kids and young people — and that could be much worse. We have the power to stop this through vaccination.

Data shows that young kids who have not gone through puberty are more likely to have symptoms no more serious than a cold with COVID-19, but after puberty…that is when the long-haul starts.  We know that COVID-19 can leave lasting effects on an individual’s body.  The virus has the key to get into cells of our brain, heart, blood vessels, lungs, and digestive system.  This can leave recovered individuals, at a rate of 1 in 4, with long-haul symptoms like cardiovascular disease, mental illness, confusion, labored breathing while doing everyday activities.  I am a mother of a 9-year-old — I don’t want that for my son, Jackson. I know that I will be choosing vaccination for my son when he is eligible. 

Some concerns that I have been hearing are that the virus may cause infertility.  There have been some misconceptions about a cross reactivity between a placental protein and the spike protein in the vaccine.  However, the virus has the same spike protein and we have not seen a drop in the birth rate.  There have been 158 million cases of COVID-19 and no drop in the birth rate.   If fertility was an issue, we would have seen that already.

Another concern is that the vaccine may lead to cancer. There have been no vaccines ever to cause cancer.  Our immune system fights cancer. And in fact, these types of vaccines are used to treat cancer.  Because it’s the mRNA vaccine, it only has lipids and mRNA.  So think of it like when you shake oil and water together, you get those little spheres of oil — that is what is in the vaccine.  Inside that sphere is the mRNA. The lipids help it get to the cell, so that the mRNA gets to send a message — and like Snapchat, it goes away. It isn’t there long enough to cause cancer.  It also isn’t in a high enough concentration to cause cancer.

I hope I have been able to assuage some of your concerns surrounding the Pfizer vaccine in this age group — I assure you that the risk of long-haul COVID-19 far outweighs any tiny risk from the vaccine. Please consider vaccinating your children aged 12 and up.

Jill D. Henning, PhD is an Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Pittsburgh Johnstown Campus. She has a broad background in immunology, infectious diseases, and cancer biology. In general, her research examines how infectious disease affect humans and animals—a concept referred to as “One Health.” She has divided her research into two specific categories: viral influences on immune function associated with cancer and zoonotic infectious diseases and their vectors. She completed her Ph.D. in Infectious Diseases Microbiology from the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health in 2008. She was a post-doctoral fellow in biobehavioral medicine for a year and joined the faculty at Pitt-Johnstown in 2009.