Should 12-year-olds get the COVID-19 vaccine?

a teenager receiving a vaccination.
A teenager receiving a vaccination. Children as young as 12 can now receive COVID-19 vaccines. (Image credit: Cavan Images via Getty Images)

Kids as young as 12 can now receive the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, yet some parents are hesitant to get their children vaccinated. Parents might worry about giving a 12-year-old a vaccine that has not yet been approved for even younger kids. So we asked doctors who specialize in infectious diseases in children a question many parents have been wondering about: Should 12-year-olds get the COVID-19 vaccine? 

The answer from experts is a resounding yes. "I absolutely think they should get the vaccine, just like I think anyone who's vaccine-eligible, which goes down to 12 now, should get vaccinated," said Dr. Aaron Milstone, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore. "Because it is, one, the best way they can protect themselves against this infection, and, two, it's the best way to help protect the community from the spread of the virus." 

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people ages 12 and older get a COVID-19 vaccine, as does the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Indeed, the CDC recently urged parents to encourage their teens to get vaccinated, after an increase in hospitalizations was reported in this age group in March and April.

Related: Quick guide: COVID-19 vaccines in use and how they work

"At some point, parents will have to decide whether they want to get their kids a vaccine or whether they want them to get COVID," Milstone said. "I know some people are nervous and they're anxious. And hopefully, as more and more children are safely vaccinated, it will reassure them that this is a safer approach than risking your child having a complication from the infection itself." 

On May 10, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) extended the emergency use authorization (EUA) for use of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in kids ages 12 to 15, Live Science previously reported. The FDA had already granted an EUA for use of the same vaccine in people ages 16 and older on Dec. 11, 2020. 

The vaccine is 100% effective in preventing COVID-19 in 12- to 15-year-olds, according to a Phase 3 clinical trial with 2,260 participants, the results of which were published May 27 in The New England Journal of Medicine. Approximately half of the participants received the vaccine, and half received a placebo. There were no cases of confirmed COVID-19 in the participants who received the vaccine and 18 cases in those who received the placebo. 

The vaccine also has a "favorable safety and side-effect profile," the authors wrote in their study. None of the vaccine recipients in the trial had any serious vaccine-related adverse events. Further, in a statement about the EUA, the FDA said it had determined that the benefit of the vaccine to children 12 and older outweighed the "known and potential risks, supporting the vaccine's use in this population."

Benefits of vaccination

Severe COVID-19 is uncommon in children, but that's not to say COVID-19 hasn't affected kids. By the end of April, there had been more than 3.7 million cases of COVID-19 in children in the United States, 15,456 child hospitalizations due to COVID-19 and 303 child deaths from COVID-19, according to a report by the AAP and the Children's Hospital Association. Many of those hospitalizations involved intensive care, added Dr. Yvonne Maldonado, chair of the AAP Committee on Infectious Diseases and chief of Stanford University School of Medicine's division of pediatric infectious diseases.

"We really do think that to protect children themselves, it's really important to get vaccinated and also to protect people in the community where children live from getting infections transmitted by children. So for both the children's good and the good of the community, it is important," said Maldonado, who is also one of the investigators on the trial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine in kids under 12. 

Another reason to get vaccinated is for protection against the long-term consequences of COVID-19, which remain to be determined, Milstone said. An example of a long-term consequence that has already been observed is multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C), which can develop in kids a month or two after infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, he said. MIS-C is characterized by the inflammation of multiple organs, Live Science previously reported

"We don't know whether there could be other late effects from this virus that just emerged a year and a half ago," Milstone said. "So for right now, I think the surest way to protect ourselves is to get vaccinated."

Furthermore, vaccination offers kids the chance to go about many of their activities without wearing masks. "The social benefits are important," Maldonado said, adding that the new mask guidelines from the CDC indicate that vaccinated people can go without masks in most situations. "And it really would be helpful for children to have that opportunity," Maldonado said.

'Millions of kids'

Within a week following FDA approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for kids ages 12 to 15, 600,000 kids within that age group had received their first doses, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told members of the media May 18, Reuters reported. As of that date, 4 million people 17 and under had been vaccinated, Walensky said. 

"Hopefully, the fact that millions of kids have gotten these vaccines safely in the United States will reassure people that this is a safe thing to do for their child," Milstone said.

In a survey reported in the Kaiser Family Foundation's May Vaccine Monitor, 41% of parents of kids ages 12 to 17 said that their children have either gotten at least one dose or that they will get vaccinated right away. 

Yet not all parents are eager for their kids to get vaccinated. In the same survey, 14% of parents said they would get their child vaccinated only if their school required it, and another 20% said they would "definitely not" get their 12- to 17-year-old vaccinated. Many parents said they are worried about vaccine side effects. 

Side effects and risks

The most common side effects of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in kids ages 12 to 15 are "tiredness, headache, chills, muscle pain, fever and joint pain," according to the FDA statement about the EUA. These side effects are similar to those reported by vaccine recipients ages 16 and up, according to the statement. 

In a May 17 statement, the CDC said it had been investigating a few cases of myocarditis (heart inflammation), primarily in adolescents, within four days of receiving a vaccine, Live Science previously reported. And recently, data from the U.S. Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) showed a higher than expected number of myocarditis cases in older adolescents and young adults, ages 16 to 24, within a month after receiving their second shot of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, according to the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). Researchers will continue to monitor this link as more young people are vaccinated to determine whether the vaccine is really the cause of these myocarditis cases, the ACIP said. It will be important to determine if there really are more cases among vaccinated people, Milstone said, because only then would it make sense to attribute the heart inflammation to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Given the large number of infections, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 in children, "we do think that the benefits of the vaccine will outweigh the risks, and that if people are concerned about myocarditis, they should know that the CDC and others are still investigating a potential relationship, but if there is a relationship, it will be rare," Maldonado said. Out of millions of vaccinations given to people under 18, there have been just a few cases of heart inflammation. Those cases have been mild and have resolved quickly, she said. 

Currently, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is the only COVID-19 vaccine approved for use in people under 18. However, Moderna announced in a May 25 statement that its vaccine is safe and effective in kids ages 12 to 17, based on the results of a Phase 2/3 clinical trial, and that it plans to submit its data to the FDA in June.

Originally published on Live Science.

Ashley P. Taylor
Live Science Contributor

Ashley P. Taylor is a writer based in Brooklyn, New York. As a science writer, she focuses on molecular biology and health, though she enjoys learning about experiments of all kinds. Ashley's work has appeared in Live Science, The New York Times blogs, The Scientist, Yale Medicine and Ashley studied biology at Oberlin College, worked in several labs and earned a master's degree in science journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program.