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Study Explores Why Parents Are Worried About Vaccinating Kids 12 and Below

Mom and daughter both wearing face masks.

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Key Takeaways

  • Only 49.4% of parents and caregivers surveyed in March 2021 planned on vaccinating their children ages 12 years old and younger when a COVID-19 vaccine is made available for their age group.
  • Parents are reluctant to vaccinate their children due to safety and effectiveness concerns and beliefs that children don't need to get vaccinated.
  • To make sure most children get vaccinated, experts say health officials must make vaccines easily accessible and engage with parents to address their concerns.

Both Pfizer and Moderna began testing their COVID-19 vaccines on children under 12 in March, which was good news to many. But according to new research, parents surveyed at the time were still hesitant about the idea of getting their kids the shot.

Only 49.4% of parents and caregivers surveyed in March 2021 planned on vaccinating their youngest child aged 12 years old and younger when a COVID-19 vaccine is made available for their age group.

The July study, published in The Journal of Pediatrics, found that among 2,074 US parents surveyed about whether they would vaccinate their youngest child:

  • 25.6% said they would not
  • 25.0% said they were unsure

The data for the study was collected before the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) expanded the emergency use authorization (EUA) of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to include adolescents ages 12 to 15 years old.

“Even parents who themselves are vaccinated may hesitate to vaccinate their kids," Magna Dias, MD, FAAP, Yale Medicine pediatrician and chair of pediatrics at Bridgeport Hospital, tells Verywell. "There are several factors that contribute to the hesitancy."

Among the survey respondents who reported that they had gotten or would get vaccinated, 85.2% said that they intended to vaccinate their child as well.

What This Means For You

Although children are less likely to develop severe COVID-19 disease, asymptomatic or mild SARS-CoV-2 infections still pose significant health risks. There aren’t any available COVID-19 vaccines for children aged 11 years old and below, but if your child is 12 years old or older, you can secure a vaccine appointment for them at vaccines.gov.

Factors Contributing to Parents’ Vaccine Hesitancy

Aside from religious or medical reasons, there were two main reasons parents cited as to why they are reluctant to vaccinate their children.

Concerns About Vaccine Safety and Effectiveness

About 78.2% of the parents surveyed who don’t plan on vaccinating their child or remain unsure about it reported that they were concerned about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness. It may be due to the lack of full FDA approval for COVID-19 vaccines, or because they worry that it was developed too quickly, Dias says.

Although SARS-CoV-2 is a new virus, the foundation of COVID-19 vaccines comes from decades-old research. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines may be the first mRNA vaccines to be licensed for use, but mRNA technology has already existed for a long time, which allowed vaccine development to move more quickly.

“The steps that were shortened were the bureaucratic steps and not the science steps,” Dias says. “All three phases [of clinical research] were still performed.”

Many parents also express concern about the vaccines’ potential side effects, and long-term effects that may not yet be well studied.

“This vaccine is under a microscope more than any other vaccine before it,” Dias says. “We are picking up even possible side effects, many of which turn out not to be true. Social media rumors are hard to fight because they activate a natural protective response from parents.”

Belief That Children Don’t Need the Vaccine

In the survey, many parents reported that they don’t believe children need to be vaccinated against COVID-19. Some people are under the impression that the virus doesn't lead to serious health effects in children.

While most children won't experience complications, some but can still develop a severe case. Even asymptomatic or mild COVID-19 infections in children can result in a rare but dangerous medical condition called multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C).

It can also lead to long COVID—persistent COVID-19 symptoms that last weeks or months after the initial infection.

“Working in the hospital, I have seen kids get admitted to the ICU as well as get MIS-C from COVID-19,” Dias says. “Death is not the only negative outcome. About 1 in 10 kids develop long haul syndrome even after mild cases. There is a lot of concern about increased risk of heart attack and strokes in kids as young adults. We have seen even young kids have strokes during their COVID infections.”

Getting Vaccinated Is Crucial

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is currently available for 12-year-olds, but there are no vaccines available for younger children. Both Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna have ongoing clinical trials to test their respective COVID-19 vaccines on children aged 5 to 11.

The FDA recently advised both companies to expand the size of their trials by doubling the original number of study participants. Although this may delay authorization, it is an additional step to ensure that the vaccines are ultimately safe for this age group.

“Vaccination is our clearest way out of the pandemic,” Elizabeth Stuart, PhD, professor of mental health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, tells Verywell. “High vaccination rates of everyone–children and adults–will help keep transmission low, and will help prevent further mutations of the virus.”

Since children are more commonly asymptomatic, it can be difficult to know whether they are infected and therefore infectious. 

“In school settings, in particular, high vaccination rates will help minimize disruption of infections, exposures, and resulting quarantines, and help keep kids in school as much as possible,” Stuart says.

The U.S. government, in coordination with health institutions, must employ several strategies to address parents’ vaccine hesitancy.

“There are a variety of factors that may be at play in terms of vaccine hesitancy, and it will be important to understand them and engage in conversation with caregivers,” Stuart says. “It may be a matter of helping them understand the approval process and safety investigations that have been conducted already. For others, it may be helping them understand the health risks of COVID–for their child and for other individuals their child may come into contact with–and help them consider the benefit and risk.”

Setting up easily accessible vaccination clinics at schools may help too, Stuart adds.

“Right now with the Delta variant, we are seeing the cases in kids significantly rising since the virus can spread much more easily,” Dias says. “It’s as contagious as chickenpox. Kids can spread the disease to others and [vaccinating them is] an important part of getting back to a normal society.”

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: FDA Authorizes Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine for Emergency Use in Adolescents in Another Important Action in Fight Against Pandemic. Published May 5, 2021.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Understanding mRNA COVID-19 Vaccines. Updated March 4, 2021.

  4. Belay ED, Abrams J, Oster ME, et al. Trends in geographic and temporal distribution of US children with multisystem inflammatory syndrome during the COVID-19 pandemic. JAMA Pediatr. Published online April 6, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.0630

  5. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Guidance on “Long COVID” as a Disability Under the ADA, Section 504, and Section 1557. Updated July 26, 2021.

  6. Coronado Munoz, A., Tasayco, J., Morales, W. et al. High incidence of stroke and mortality in pediatric critical care patients with COVID-19 in Peru. Pediatr Res. 2021. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41390-021-01547-x

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Science Brief: Transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in K-12 Schools and Early Care and Education Programs – Updated. Updated July 9, 2021.