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Should young children be vaccinated for COVID-19? A Tampa pediatrician will advise an FDA committee

A Tampa pediatrician is one of several doctors who will be presenting to the Food and Drug Administration’s advisory committee on Tuesday when it considers whether to recommend Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5-11.

Dr. David Berger, owner of Wholistic Pediatrics and Family Care, will tell the committee he believes in a “holistic” medicine approach that provides parents with information and lets them make the decision.

Vaccine hesitancy will present a challenge, especially for parents of young children, but Berger said the best way to address it is to educate families so they can make informed decisions about their child’s welfare. He emphasized the importance of dialogue and hearing the parents’ concerns.

“By listening to families, hearing what their concerns are, sometimes they have more legitimate concerns. Sometimes they have less legitimate concerns from what I hear, but this is still their reality,” Berger said. “And by pushing them away by ostracizing them, by criticizing them, that's not getting anywhere.”

Misinformation has had an impact on parents’ decisions to vaccinate their children, he said. The conversations he has with patients allow him to expand their perspectives and make better choices for their family’s interest, he said.

“People hear what they want to hear, but nowadays, people also say what they want to hear. You know, people have an echo chamber,” Berger said. “We know social media algorithms feed people the information that they want to hear, because of what they've seen already.”

Being in holistic medicine, Berger has the opportunity to treat patients who are looking for alternatives to traditional medicine.

He said doctors should give families the autonomy to make their own decisions when it comes to vaccinations. His approach focuses on finding alternative routes to meet the needs and preferences of each patient while giving them facts and data to make informed decisions.

“If a family decides that they're going to live a healthier lifestyle, and develop a stronger immune system, and allow themselves to be exposed to COVID, OK, that's their choice, they can do that,” Berger said. “So again, the more I can educate people, and let them understand what their choices are, and what the implications and the validity of where they're coming from, I think that that's what moves the ball forward.”

But many in the medical community would consider some of Berger’s practices controversial.

Patients should be discouraged from voluntarily contracting COVID-19 as a way to become immune, said Jill Roberts, associate professor at the USF College of Public Health. The risks of getting severely ill are higher and the best way to preserve someone’s health is by getting vaccinated, she said.

“At any point, if anyone says you should get the disease to get natural immunity, you should look really, really closely into the potential side effects of getting that disease,” Roberts said. “Under no circumstances should someone intentionally give someone COVID or think that going that route is any bit safer than actually going with the vaccine.”

Even though children have a low risk of severe side effects from COVID-19, they should still be vaccinated, Roberts said. Children have the same chances of testing positive as adults, especially as in-person schools and activities return.

And there is a concern that they will spread the virus to immunocompromised and older individuals that could develop more severe symptoms.

“We know that kids can be spreaders of the disease. Unfortunately, there's kind of [false claims] going around that kids don't have serious disease or don't end up hospitalized, and we really saw with the delta variant that was not true,” Roberts said. “There were kids that were filling the ICU for pediatrics and with COVID cases and this continues, unfortunately, because they couldn't be vaccinated.”

In Florida, case positivity for young children was 5.3% last week, which was higher than the positivity rates of other age groups. The Florida Department of Health reported nearly 3,000 coronavirus cases among children from Oct. 8-14.

One of the reasons behind the high number of cases, according to Roberts, is the absence of a vaccine for younger age groups.

“Having a kids vaccine will greatly decrease the number of people who are potential carriers of coronavirus,” Roberts said.

Those who are unsure or still have questions about getting the vaccine should contact their health care provider, she said. While doctors would give fact-based information and resources for parents to make informed decisions, she said they should also understand where the hesitancy is coming from and how to get to the root of the issue.

“If it's misinformation, I can give good information,” Roberts said. “So we've got data, we have statistics [and] we have science.

“Misinformation … can be spread through the internet pretty quickly. And unfortunately, it grows … So listening is incredibly important and meeting people where their hesitancy lies.”

The vaccine is the most efficient method to prevent the spread of the virus and protect families, Roberts said.

“The coronavirus is going to continue to mutate the more people that it has the ability to pass through,” Roberts said. “So the more times it replicates, the more times it spreads, the more times it mutates. That doesn't always mean it mutates to something worse; it may actually mutate back toward a form which is livable. But at the time being right now, vaccination is really the best tool we have.”

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