During a recent PW Podcast episode, we spoke with Perri Klass, MD, Professor of Journalism and Pediatrics at New York University and co-author of the perspective “Vaccinating Children against COVID-19—The Lessons of Measles,” published in the New England Journal of Medicine. Following is a summary of that interview:
Why is it important for children to be vaccinated against COVID-19?
While children are generally less vulnerable to the virus, some children get very seriously ill and have major complications. There’s also the general burden of disease and long-term complications. Children are also a very important part of achieving herd immunity. So, even if a child is not particularly at high risk, it’s still important for him/her to get vaccinated, even to avoid a rare, serious complication.
Addressing how the COVID-19 vaccine benefits children, their families, and society at large was one of the reasons Adam Ratner, MD, MPH, and I were interested in comparing the vaccine with the MMR vaccine. When you think historically about a disease like polio, that was a disease parents were terrified of; the epidemics came every summer, and there were empty seats in the classroom in the fall. And when the polio vaccine came, parents were eager to have their children vaccinated. We thought it would be more interesting to discuss the process of explaining, communicating, and rolling out a vaccine like the MMR vaccine.
For most children who got measles, it was not dangerous, but it was an unpleasant, miserable disease. I’m not sure many people would be willing to put up with it now, but it was only dangerous in relatively rare cases. The problem with measles, which is also to some extent the problem with COVID-19, is that there were many cases, so there were many of those rare cases and many children left devastated or killed. But when you immunize the whole population against a disease like measles —not a disease that parents are already terrified of—you need to explain those rare complications or talk about keeping vulnerable people safe. It’s both about keeping the children themselves safe from rare complications but also about creating a world in which someone who is particularly vulnerable can feel confident that a particular disease is not lurking in the population.
How can we fight the mistrust and misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccine?
A good deal of fighting the misinformation around the COVID-19 vaccine that has led to mistrust needs to be done in pediatric and other medical offices, because that’s where families find themselves consenting to vaccination. It’s complicated, because some of the misinformation and disinformation is being very deliberately planted. Vulnerable communities are being very deliberately targeted, and parents are being made extremely anxious. I think, on the one hand, we have to be frank and sometimes even a little caustic about those spreading disinformation and make sure they do not have a platform, are corrected, and are met with the fact checking they deserve. But, on the other hand, I think we also have to be very respectful of the anxieties and questions of parents, take them seriously, and be willing to have the conversation.