Ask the Pediatrician: How do the COVID-19 vaccines work, and are they safe for teens? | Lifestyles

Q: How do the COVID-19 vaccines work, are they safe for teens, and how long does immunity last?

A: COVID-19 vaccines are currently approved for individuals 16 and older and are expected to be available soon for children 12 and older. Here are some important things to know about the vaccines.

The COVID-19 vaccine works in the same way as other vaccines your child has had. Germs such as SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, invade and multiply in the body. The vaccine stops this by helping the immune system make special proteins called antibodies to fight the virus. Your child is less likely to get COVID-19 after vaccination. And if your child does become infected with the virus, they may not be as sick as they were without the vaccine.

Three vaccines have been approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to date. Two require two doses (Pfizer and Moderna), and one is a single shot (Johnson & Johnson). Distribution of the single vaccine was interrupted to look for possible links between the vaccine and some extremely rare but serious blood clots reported during the vaccine safety surveillance process. It is now being administered again.

The COVID-19 vaccines that require two doses are both messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA) vaccines. The other has been developed as a “viral vector” vaccine. They all have the same result – protecting people from COVID-19 – but their delivery systems are a bit different.

COVID-19 mRNA vaccines instruct our cells to produce harmless pieces of “spike” protein found on SARS-CoV-2. This triggers an immune system response that the body withholds if the virus ever enters.

Although this technology has been studied for decades, the widespread use of mRNA vaccines is new. They do not take advantage of the live coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The mRNA in the vaccine enters the cells where the injection is given. It then gives the cells instructions on how to make a piece of protein found on the virus that causes COVID-19.

Once the protein is created, your immune system identifies it as a foreign molecule. The immune process begins, producing antibodies that can attach to the protein. These antibodies protect you against COVID-19.

Viral vector vaccines, like the mRNA vaccines, also provide instructions to your immune cells. Rather than delivering the instructions to your cells through a fat bubble, as with the mRNA vaccine, they are carried by a harmless virus (not the coronavirus that causes COVID-19).

The same process happens as with the mRNA vaccine: the cells make the protein found on the virus that causes COVID-19, the immune system makes antibodies to fight it, and you’re protected from COVID-19.

Before obtaining FDA approval, clinical studies showed that COVID-19 vaccines are remarkably safe and effective for adults and teens ages 16 and older. Trials for each of the vaccines involved tens of thousands of volunteers.

Clinical trials for younger children are underway. One of the vaccine manufacturers has applied for FDA approval to include children as young as 12 years old. Clinical trials are expected to begin shortly in children from 6 months of age.

The vaccines are still being monitored very closely. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say COVID-19 vaccines will have “the most intensive safeguards in US history.”

Scientists aren’t sure how long immunity to the vaccine will protect people. But people likely need a third dose of a COVID-19 vaccine within a year of being fully vaccinated and may need annual injections to protect themselves against the virus, Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla said in April.

It takes about two full weeks after your body receives the second dose of the mRNA vaccines to build up immunity against the virus that causes COVID-19. For the single vaccine, it takes two to four weeks to build up immunity.

Currently, the Pfizer vaccine is approved for teens ages 16 or 17 and is approved for ages 12-15. And don’t forget that COVID-19 vaccines are free regardless of whether you have health insurance or not.

Dr. James D. Campbell is a pediatric infectious disease specialist based in Maryland and is also a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Infectious Diseases. For more information, visit HealthyChildren.org, the AAP’s parent website.

© 2021 Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Copyright 2021 Tribune Content Agency.

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