Vaccine advisers to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday voted unanimously in favor of expanding the emergency use authorizations for the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines to include children under 5 years old. 

The roughly 18 million children younger than 5 are the only Americans not yet eligible for vaccination against COVID-19.

There are around 183,000 children in Mississippi in this age group. 

Here’s what you need to know. 

What happens now?

The FDA is not required to follow the adviser’s recommendation but is likely to do so. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will still have to weigh in on that decision if it comes, but if the agency gives its approval as well, vaccines could become available for children in this age group as soon as next week.

Are the vaccines for children different than the adult vaccines?

Both vaccines use the same messenger RNA technology, but the dosage and regimens for young children differ from adults’. Moderna’s regimen will include two doses at one-quarter the strength of adult doses, while Pfizer’s requires three doses at one-tenth the strength of adult doses. 

Pfizer’s vaccine is the only one currently approved for use in children ages 5 and older.

How did the approval for children happen?

A panel of outside vaccine experts met and reviewed the safety and efficacy data submitted by both vaccine manufacturers. The process was the same for the FDA’s approval of COVID-19 vaccines for each age group.

Are the vaccines for children effective?

In its analyses of Pfizer and Moderna data, the FDA said both vaccines are effective in preventing symptomatic infection. Pfizer’s vaccine appeared 80% effective at preventing a symptomatic COVID-19 infection in children under five. Moderna’s vaccine was around 40% to 50% effective for children under 6. 

“Pediatricians and parents are eager to have a COVID vaccine for children down to the age of 6 months,” Dr. Anita Henderson, President of the Mississippi Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics and a pediatrician at The Pediatric Clinic in Hattiesburg, said in a statement to Mississippi Today. “We are seeing an increase in COVID cases right now in Mississippi, and we must remember that over the last two years, 13 children in our state have lost their life to COVID. Many additional children have had MIS-C (multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children) and other complications from COVID-19. If the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are approved for use among children 6 months and older, pediatricians would welcome the opportunity to protect this age group as well.”

Are the vaccines for children safe?

The clinical trials of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for children showed minimal side effects.

“Given the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and likelihood of continued SARS-CoV-2 transmission during the ensuing months, deployment of the vaccine for use among children 6 months through 4 years of age will likely have a beneficial effect on COVID-19-associated morbidity and mortality in this age group,” the FDA said.

How many children under five have gotten COVID-19?

More than 30,000 children younger than 5 have been hospitalized with COVID-19 in the U.S., and nearly 500 coronavirus deaths have been reported in that age group, according to United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy.

In Mississippi, children under 5 have comprised less than 5% of the state’s monthly COVID-19 cases for the majority of the pandemic. 

How can I get the vaccine for my child?

The Mississippi Department of Health has pre-ordered doses of Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines for children, and the shots will be available as soon as next week. The vaccine will be made available for children under 5 at MSDH clinics, and parents will be able to schedule appointments through the agency’s website. 

State Epidemiologist Dr. Paul Byers said MSDH will recommend that parents vaccinate their children under 5 if the FDA approves the shots.

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Will Stribling covered healthcare and breaking news for Mississippi Today.