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While the US Food and Drug Administration has yet to give the green light to COVID-19 vaccination for children who are under age 12, it is expected that approval will be granted. In anticipation of the FDA’s go-ahead, which is expected in the coming weeks, a new “rapid expert consultation” has identified “actionable guidance” that state and local decision-makers can use to communicate with the public. The goal is to build confidence in and promote the uptake of COVID-19 vaccines, especially for parents who are contemplating vaccinating their children.
They note that key factors in decision-making concern vaccine side effects, the efficacy of the vaccine in children, availability of research in their child’s age group, research conducted by the parents themselves, and recommendations by the child’s health care provider.
“One of the reasons that the COVID vaccine only became available for children 12 and over months after it was approved for adults is that it takes time and many, many trial participants who are closely monitored before the vaccine ever reaches the general public,” said Nusheen Ameenuddin, MD, MPH, MPA, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. “We continue to talk to parents about the fact that the vaccines have been very safe and effective in this group, and even though people are concerned about side effects, they are much milder and less frequent than the effects of the disease itself.”
Ameenuddin noted that the lack of data in this age group can be concerning for parents. “It’s not like other vaccines which have been available for a long time, and the clinical trial data are still limited for this age group,” she said. “But I think the main point that practitioners need to emphasize is that, even though the vaccine is new, the science for this vaccine has been around for about a decade.”
The unique circumstances of a pandemic, she pointed out, allowed for important information about effectiveness, safety, and side effects to be obtained more quickly from clinical trial data.
“We have really good evidence for kids 12 and over, about safety and effectiveness, and even though children are not small adults and have their own unique physiology, this has provided a good starting point to suggest that kids slightly younger will also respond well to the vaccines,” said Ameenuddin, who is also chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Communications and Media. “As we learn more, we can start gathering more information about even younger kids to ensure that the right dosage and spacing of vaccines can provide maximum vaccine effectiveness and protection from disease.”
The guidance was published Oct. 13 by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
The rapid expert consultation was produced through the Societal Experts Action Network, an activity of the National Academies that is sponsored by the NASEM and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The goal of SEAN is to connect researchers in the social, behavioral, and economic sciences with decision-makers to respond to policy questions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In their expert consultation, the authors emphasize that vaccination is critical for decreasing transmission and controlling infection, as well as limiting the emergence of future serious variants. As of Oct. 3, 2021, about 65% of the U.S. population had received at least one dose of the vaccine, and the rate has begun to lag in many areas of the country. There are a variety of reasons for vaccine hesitancy, they note, including perception of low risks from COVID-19 or of high risks from COVID-19 vaccines, exposure to media, political agendas, lack of confidence in science, and distrust of the medical establishment. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is currently authorized for emergency use for individuals 12 years of age and older and fully approved for those aged 16 and older, while the Moderna and the Johnson & Johnson vaccines are authorized for emergency use for those 18 years of age and older.
Many children between the ages of 12 and 17 have not been vaccinated, and the major concerns reported by parents include not knowing enough about the long-term effects of the COVID-19 vaccine in children (88%), concerns about children experiencing serious side effects (79%), and concerns that the COVID-19 vaccine might negatively affect future fertility (73%).
The National Academies have previously released two other “rapid expert consultations” which have addressed building vaccine confidence, and both reports provide key strategies for communicating information about COVID-19 vaccines. In this paper, the focus was on communicating with parents to gain confidence in the vaccine and address concerns.
The key strategies highlighted for communicating with parents include the following:
Emphasizing safety and efficacy: Parents should be informed about the ongoing research and clinical trials that will answer more questions about the vaccine and that there is continued monitoring for any safety risks. Pointing to the safety data from the clinical trials for 12- to 17-year-olds, and the lack of serious adverse events from the vaccine in this age group may help alleviate concerns.
CalibriEncouraging parents to talk with a primary care provider: Research shows that parents trust family physicians and other health care practitioners to provide them with accurate information about vaccines. Local, state, and national leaders can provide messaging templates and other resources to health care professionals who are engaged in these conversations.
Leveraging social networks to influence parents’ vaccination decisions: Parents are influenced by their social network connections. It is important to engage these networks, especially with members of their community who are considered trustworthy and influential. Social networks may also be very diverse, and include family members, friends, coworkers, social media, and members of their religious community.
While the guidance states that different groups of parents will require different messaging, they suggest that communication can begin with a focus on the things that vaccination can accomplish. In addition to preventing infection with COVID-19, it will allow children to attend school in person and participate in extracurricular activities such as sports, without risking their health. “One thing I’ve learned over several years of working with vaccine-hesitant parents is that you have to tailor each approach to the individual,” said Ameenuddin. “Different people have different concerns, and first and foremost, it’s important to listen.”
For some parents, emphasizing that the more people that can be vaccinated and the sooner it can be done, the sooner everyone can return to a normal life is a good approach, she added. “I think it’s important to emphasize both the individual and communal benefits of vaccines, but that won’t necessarily reach every person with concerns. I think it’s important to find out what is most important to individuals and work from there to find a way to connect with that family to encourage vaccination.”
Ameenuddin has no disclosures.
This story originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.
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