WRAL Investigates

One expert recommends parents avoid latest booster vaccine for healthy children

There's growing concern among some pediatricians about the latest Covid booster vaccine. The reason: A rare side effect that causes inflammation of the heart, and early surveillance shows it impacts young, healthy boys at a higher rate.

Posted Updated

By
WRAL Investigates

There’s growing concern among some pediatricians about the latest Covid booster vaccine. The reason: A rare side effect that causes inflammation of the heart, and early surveillance shows it impacts young, healthy boys at a higher rate.

"I think it’s important that all patients and families are aware of the possible side effects," says Dr. Jennifer Li, who’s a pediatric cardiologist at Duke Health. She has seen young patients develop heart problems from Covid and the vaccines.

Still, Li supports getting the latest booster, "I personally feel the benefits far outweigh the risks."

The risk that’s grabbing headlines is myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle. It’s rare, but appears to be more frequent with boosters, especially the latest bivalent vaccine targeting the newest strain of the Omicron variant. The initial doses of the Covid vaccine and the first booster were monovalent — they contained one strain or component of the virus. The new Pfizer and Moderna boosters are bivalent, which contain two strains or component of the virus.

Li took part in a national study that compiled data on those who contracted myocarditis or pericarditis from the vaccine. "Most of the people were male, late teens and usually got it after the second dose," Li says of the study’s results.

WRAL Investigates found studies back that up, one finding a disproportionate number of myocarditis cases in males, especially among adolescents. Another went a step further, saying the Moderna vaccines posed the greatest risk to young men.

"I think this is confusing for the general public," says Dr. Paul Offit, of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. He’s been a voting member of the FDA Vaccine Advisory Committee since 2017.

"I am not anti-vaccination," Offit answered with a laugh when WRAL Investigates asked him about his general stance. That said, he voted against the latest recommendations to open up the new booster to younger age groups.

Asked if he would give the bivalent vaccine to his children, Offit quickly replied, "No."

Offit points to three groups who SHOULD get the boosters — the elderly, the immunocompromised and those with high-risk medical conditions.

"Healthy children don’t need a booster dose, assuming they’ve gotten either three doses of a vaccine to date or two doses and a natural infection," Offit tells families under his care.

That rings more true for parents of boys, says Offit. "As yet it’s unclear why it is that boys — primarily after the second dose, primarily within 7 days of the second dose — are more likely to get myocarditis, but that is a fact."

A fact Offit says parents need to consider before registering their child for a bivalent booster.

"I think that if a vaccine is clearly a benefit, then it is a risk worth taking, but if vaccines are not clearly a benefit then the risk, no matter how small or no matter how transient or self-resolving, is still a risk not worth taking," he told WRAL Investigates.

Li’s research shows most people with vaccine-induced myocarditis see symptoms resolve in a matter of days. However, the full recovery for many can take months. That means no physical activity at all, which is a scary proposition for parents of young people who play sports.

However, in the big picture, Li thinks the risks of vaccine side effects are still better than getting Covid. "The risks are very, very small and the benefits are much larger, so I recommend it," she said. "If a child were to get Covid, their risk of getting myocarditis are six times higher with getting Covid then with getting a second dose of the vaccine."

Offit isn’t so sure that’s the case with young people who have already received their initial doses, plus a booster or a natural infection.

Both doctors agree there’s much more to learn about the long-term impacts of vaccine-related myocarditis and why some people seem more susceptible to the risk. There are currently several ongoing studies. WRAL Investigates is tracking those and will keep parents informed as more information comes out.