How the COVID Vaccine Works: A Guide for Parents of Younger Children

Published: November 29, 2021

Susan E. Lasky, DO, FAAP, Stamford Health Medical Group Pediatric Center
(Adapted from a feature in The Ridgefield Press. Content repurposed with permission.)

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The CDC and FDA recently authorized Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines for children 5-11 years old. In addition to some of the questions you may have, you may also be wondering exactly how an mRNA vaccine works. I’m here to explain the science behind the COVID-19 vaccine because understanding it can help clear up any misconceptions about vaccinating your younger child!

1. The COVID-19 vaccine will not "give" your children COVID-19.

Please don’t worry about this because, scientifically, it’s just not possible. There is no virus, dead or alive, in the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine or any of the COVID-19 vaccines. It will not give your child (or anyone!) COVID, make them shed spike proteins, cause them to be contagious or affect their fertility later in life. (See also: Myths, Truths and the Bottom Line.)

2. Think of an mRNA vaccine as a set of instructions.

If your child is old enough to ask how the vaccine works, you can lay it out in simple terms for them, like this:

  • When the doctor gives you the COVID shot, something called a spike protein gives your body a special message that protects you from getting very sick. This is called immunity and it’s a superpower that doctors like me have spent their whole lives believing in and working on.
  • Our bodies use these mRNA instructions all the time to make more proteins. Our cells know how to read these instructions, then throw them out when they’re finished with them.
  • Think of it this way: you get an envelope of instructions on how to build a Lego spaceship in the mail. Just like the vaccine gives your body instructions to make a spike protein replica, you build your spaceship with Legos you already have. Your body builds the spike protein from its own amino acids. Amino acids are the “building blocks” of life.

Then, you show off your cool spaceship to all of your friends and neighbors, just like your cell shows off its spike protein. Here’s what happens next.

  • The police and FBI are worried there is a spaceship in the neighborhood, so they attack it to get rid of it and the FBI reminds the spaceship that it will be remembered it comes back.
  • Just like your immune system attacks the spike protein with antibodies, and your memory cells remember the spike, your immune system now knows to attack it before you get sick… if COVID-19 enters your body.

Finally, the mRNA and spike protein are both destroyed and you are just left with the immunity from COVID-19.

3. mRNA vaccine technology has been studied for decades and is not "experimental."

While I can understand where parents are coming from with this, I always ask them to consider the following:

  • Vaccines are well studied and there is an overwhelming amount of good science that confirms they are safe.
  • There has never been a vaccine that causes long-term problems and there is no reason to think that this is different. (The individual who claimed the MMR vaccine caused autism lost his medical license because there was no scientific proof behind his theory, just unethical intentions.)
  • The Pfizer vaccine has been well studied and gone through the same rigorous testing and analysis as all the other childhood vaccines.
  • Most importantly, vaccines have been scrutinized probably more than any other medications/pharmaceuticals on the market and more than other medications that you or your children take regularly.

Finally, vaccines are definitely more regulated than medications you would give your children for certain auto-immune diseases or cancers.

4. Vaccines are the greatest contribution medicine has made to humanity.

5 young children, in classroom against white board, with teacherNot that long ago- children commonly became sick, disabled or died of the illnesses that we now prevent with vaccines (polio and smallpox, for starters). The mortality rate in the last 200+ years has dropped from 462 to 7 deaths per 1,000 births for children under the age of 5.

That means that, in the 1800’s, 462 children for every 1,000 born died before their 5th birthday. While not all of this can be explained from the introduction of vaccines, much of it can. As a pediatrician, I have unfortunately seen many of these preventable diseases over the years. Now, I rarely see them because we all do such a great job, collectively, at keeping our kids healthy. Vaccines play a major role.

5. It's not true that COVID-19 doesn't affect children.

I have seen many children with COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. Although it is less likely to cause death in children, it still can cause severe illness and long-term effects. This idea that they don’t get it, get sick from it, or spread it to those who are more vulnerable is simply not true.

6. I have two children who are fully vaccinated, and their safety is everything to me.

Both of my girls are fully vaccinated, and I would never “experiment” on my own children or give them something I didn’t understand and trust 100%.

7. On the fence about vaccinating your 5-11-year-old? Trust your pediatrician.

Please talk to your pediatrician about the vaccine and the choice for your family. Your pediatrician has dedicated their entire life to the health and wellbeing of children. They are highly educated on how the immune system works, how vaccines work and only have the best interest of your child in mind. Trust them to guide you over something you heard from a friend or read online.

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