Many parents of young children have been anxiously awaiting authorization of COVID-19 vaccines for those younger than 5. Their wait is over.
Last week, the Food and Drug Administration acted to authorize both the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines for children as young as 6 months old. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also recommended a COVID-19 vaccine series in this age group.
After extensive clinical studies of the safety and effectiveness of these vaccines in young children, with these regulatory actions, more than 18 million children in the United States are newly eligible for vaccine protection against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19.
Some might wonder what’s taken so long for younger children to have access to COVID-19 vaccines? The initial studies of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines focused on adults and older adolescents, and these vaccines now have a proven track record of safety and effectiveness. With the expansion of eligibility to include children ages 5 years and older last fall and after the administration of hundreds of millions of doses to children and adults in the United States, health experts now have data from clinical trials to support this expanded eligibility.
The availability of COVID-19 vaccines for young children could not come at a better time. The United States has recently been experiencing a summer surge of infections attributable to the BA.2.12.1 omicron subvariant. Omicron and its subvariants have proven more transmissible than previous variants of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, including delta last summer. This increased transmissibility has led to higher rates of infection.
Meanwhile, it is a myth that children are not susceptible to infection or serious infection from the SARS-CoV-2 virus. According to data from the CDC, the total number of recorded COVID-19 cases among children aged 4 years and younger exceeded 2.5 million since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. Meanwhile, death from COVID-19 ranks among the leading causes of death in this same age group and is the leading cause of death among young children because of an infectious disease.
When comparing COVID-19 with other vaccine preventable illnesses for which vaccines are now widely available and accepted, the rate of death in the 6-month-old to 4-year-old age group substantially exceeds the rate of death before the availability of vaccine. This includes hepatitis A, meningococcal meningitis, chicken pox, rubella and rotavirus.
As we look to the upcoming fall and winter viral season, it is reasonable to expect a new surge in COVID-19 illness. Acting now to protect our youngest children is important. Safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines are now available and recommended for every person aged 6 months and older. COVID-19 vaccination is the single most effective strategy to prevent serious illness.
Dr. Matthew A. Clark, a board-certified physician in internal medicine and pediatrics, works for the Indian Health Service.