Saskatchewan·Q&A

Sask. virologist offers her advice on how to prepare kids for COVID-19 vaccination

Now that Pfizer has asked Health Canada to approve its COVID-19 vaccine for children age five to 11, CBC asked Alyson Kelvin, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infection and Disease Organization in Saskatoon, for advice on how to talk about vaccination with kids.

With Pfizer seeking approval for its vaccine for kids 5-11, VIDO virologist and mom Alyson Kelvin offers tips

Alyson Kelvin is a virologist at VIDO at the University of Saskatoon. (David Stobbe)

This week, Pfizer officially asked Health Canada to approve its COVID-19 vaccine, created in partnership with BioNtech, for use in kids ages five to 11. 

Authorization of an mRNA vaccine for children under 12 would be a major step, since there are currently no COVID-19 vaccines authorized for children that age in Canada.

For some advice on how to talk about vaccination with younger kids, CBC Saskatchewan host Sam Maciag spoke with Alyson Kelvin, a virologist at the Vaccine and Infection and Disease Organization (VIDO) in Saskatoon.

She's also a member of the World Health Organization's advisory committee on COVID-19 vaccine design.

WATCH| Sask. virologist on what you need to know about kids getting the COVID-19 vaccine:

Sask. virologist on what you need to know about kids getting the COVID-19 vaccine

7 months ago
Duration 7:25
As parents await Health Canada approval for the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for kids aged 5-11 years old, CBC's Sam Maciag chats with Alyson Kelvin a virologist with VIDO in Saskatoon on what you need to know.

What would you say to parents who may be unsure about letting their kids get a shot?

Kelvin: [This is] really exciting because basically kids have been left out of our priorities during this pandemic. They were thought of last in our priority list. So having vaccines for kids is really important.

By vaccinating children, we're stopping the chain of transmission. If kids aren't being infected, then they're not able to pass along the virus.

We know that kids typically develop less severe disease, or COVID-19, than adults, but they still can develop severe [cases]. Vaccinating them will prevent severe disease.

Pfizer has officially asked Health Canada to approve its vaccine for use in kids ages five to 11.  (CBC/Radio-Canada)

It will prevent other conditions as well that kids are known to be susceptible to after being infected. This includes a multi-inflammatory system in children, a syndrome that happens in kids after they're infected with SARS-CoV-2 [the coronavirus that causes COVID-19]. It causes inflammation throughout the body.

Kids are also susceptible to long COVID. We know from some studies that about 10 per cent of kids who recover from COVID-19 may experience symptoms for months after being infected.

It's really important that we start vaccinating children so that they can get back to what is important to them ... their regular activities, which is important for their development.

Some parents are concerned that enough kids haven't been vaccinated to call this a successful trial. You work with the World Health Organization — what are your thoughts on the data?

Kelvin: I'm very encouraged by the safety profile of the vaccine in kids.

Even though children in this trial received a smaller dose of vaccine, their antibodies — which will protect them from disease and infection — were brought to similar levels as kids between the ages of 16 and 25.

If your child has already had COVID-19, do they still need to be vaccinated?

Kelvin: Right now the advice that's being given throughout the world is that if you have had COVID-19 and have been infected with SARS-CoV-2, you should still be vaccinated for COVID-19.

There are several reasons for this.

First is that your immune response after having and recovering from COVID-19 is variable. So the virus might not always lead to productive, protective antibodies after infection.

And what we've seen is that people who have recovered from COVID-19 and become vaccinated have higher levels of protective antibodies, and antibodies that are also kind of superpowered. They're able to protect against other variants better.

Kelvin is a member of the World Health Organization's advisory committee on COVID-19 vaccine design. (Liam Richards/The Canadian Press)

Break down the science for us so people can explain this to their kids. How does the mRNA vaccine work?

Kelvin: The intricacies really revolve around our basic biology.

At the centre of our cells, we have DNA. And DNA is basically the information for our genes, which makes up who we are. And in between our information and our protein, which are the pieces that build us, is an intermediate middle piece called mRNA. And these are the transforming instructions that tell our cells how to make things.

So basically, what happened for the mRNA vaccines [to be created] is that researchers took this mRNA and coded it for a piece of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. And when we get our vaccine, we get the mRNA for the piece of the SARS-CoV-2, and this gives our [bodies] instructions to make a piece of the virus.

And then we have special cells inside ourselves that will learn what this piece looks like so that it can develop responses to protect us if we actually come into contact with the virus.

Some kids just don't like needles. Any advice for those who feel like they'd have to sit on their child to get them vaccinated?

Kelvin: I have a child that I had to sit on for some of her previous vaccines. She's specifically afraid of needles.

But what I've seen with her is that she was super excited when it was her turn to get her COVID-19 vaccine. She was only 11 when she got it. But the day that she found out she was able to get it, she was first in line.

So what I think is that kids right now see the benefit of this, and we have to give them credit for that. They know how they've been affected by the pandemic.

And if you have a child like mine who really doesn't want needles and still doesn't want the COVID 19 vaccine, there are many reasons that you can discuss with them for getting the vaccine … such as protecting you as the parent. By getting vaccinated, it helps protect you from severe disease, as well as other people that you love.

Ice cream helps too.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Laura is a reporter for CBC Saskatchewan. She is also the community reporter for CBC's virtual road trip series Land of Living Stories. Laura previously worked for CBC Vancouver. Some of her former work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, NYLON Magazine, VICE Canada and The Tyee. She holds a master of journalism degree from the University of British Columbia. Follow Laura on Twitter: @MeLaura. Send her news tips at laura.sciarpelletti@cbc.ca

With files from Sam Maciag

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