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Why is it a shot? Kids’ questions about COVID vaccines

Colin Sweeney, Nicole Sweeney
Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
/
AP
Colin Sweeney, 12, gets a shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine as his mother Nicole pats his shoulder on Friday, May 14, 2021, in Pasadena, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The FDA recently gave emergency use authorization to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for kids age 5 to 11. With all the news and conversation about this development, kids are curious to know more about the Covid vaccine--and vaccines in general! So in this episode we answer questions from kids and parents, including: Why does it have to be a shot? How do vaccines work? How does a vaccine trial work? Should an 11.5yo get the shot as soon as it’s available or wait until age 12 to get the larger dose?

We speak with Sofia and Nico Chavez and their parents. The kids took part in the vaccine trial at Stanford University. We’re also joined by Dr. Jenna Bollyky, an investigator in the Stanford trial site, and Dr. Mark Levine, Vermont’s Health Commissioner.

Download our learning guides: PDF | Google Slides | Transcript

Vaccine Info from the CDC

“Why do they have to use needles for shots?”
- Nina, 6, Maryland

“In general, vaccines are a way to train your immune system without having to get sick,’ explains Dr. Bollyky

Your immune system is how your body works to fight off sickness from things like viruses.

Most vaccines use a small protein from the virus you want to fight, or from a similar virus – and they put that little protein in your body in a very small and weakened or changed amount to help your body learn how to fight the real invader. But giving the vaccine as a drink or a pill wouldn’t work, because of your stomach acid!

“Whenever we want to give a protein or something that your body turns into a protein, the acid in the stomach does a really good job of breaking down that protein. So it’s really hard to get a vaccine that comes as a pill,” Bollyky says.

In order to get that vaccine into your muscle, where it needs to go, a doctor or a nurse uses a thin needle. They do have to poke you, but that doesn’t mean they like it. “If we could give it as a pill we would,” Dr. Bollyky promises! While that poke might hurt, sometimes the anticipation of the shot is worse than the real thing.

“Why can’t we drink medicine to keep us safe from the virus, instead of shots?"
- Eloise, 5, Texas

The reason your arm sometimes aches after getting a shot is that the immune cells are coming to be educated. “The cells around where the medication was delivered, they’re doing their job, they’re taking in the information they need and are starting to train your immune system,” Dr. Bollyky assures us. “So that immune response is exactly what you want to teach your body to fight the infection should you encounter the real virus later.”

It’s normal to feel a little tired or run down after some vaccines, including the COVID vaccine. But if you feel very ill, you should contact a doctor or health care provider.

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Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. She also produces special projects for the station. Until March 2021, she was the host of the award-winning Vermont Public Radio program Vermont Edition.
Melody is the senior producer for But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids.