COVID vaccine for adolescents looks promising




A Riley infectious disease physician believes parents will welcome the news that their children may soon be eligible for the Pfizer vaccine.

By Maureen Gilmer, IU Health senior journalist,

The news that Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine has shown 100% efficacy in trials involving youth ages 12-15 is exciting for physicians, public health officials and parents.

Dr. John Christenson, chief of clinical services for the Ryan White Center for Pediatric Disease and Global Health at Riley Hospital for Children, said he believes a lot of families will be relieved to hear the news.

Dr. John Christenson professional photo

“A lot of parents have been calling and asking for something to protect their children, so this is news that many are going to welcome,” the infectious disease expert said. “A lot of teenagers have been kept out of school because of the fear of transmission, and many parents know that COVID in older children tends to be as bad as what is seen in adults.”

Still to be determined is when the vaccine will be available for those in the 12- to 15-year-old age group, but he hopes and expects that it will receive emergency-use authorization by the CDC in time for the start of the next school year.

“The vaccine showed remarkable results, and I hope that in next few months Pfizer will submit all the data and the FDA will approve it,” Dr. Christenson said.

The two-shot Pfizer vaccine is currently available to those 16 and older. The company recently began testing the vaccine in kids as young as 5.

“I think people were a little surprised that the vaccine was so highly effective in young people,” he said. “However, if you look at children, they don’t generally have the co-morbidities that adults do, like obesity and diabetes. For them to have a good immune response is not surprising.”


Next up after adolescents will be the younger crowd, kids like 9-year-old Lauren Isenhour. Her big brother, Adam, a 16-year-old cancer survivor, recently received his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

“She’s definitely going to get it,” said Lauren’s mom, Alison. “As soon as they open it up, we’re signing her up. She can’t wait. She feels real left out that she’s the only one in the family who hasn’t gotten it.”

Alison Isenhour, who works at IU Health Methodist Hospital, hopes everyone will choose to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

“I know some won’t, but make informed decisions,” she pleaded. “Read, educate yourself, and use credible sources to make your decision.”

It’s no surprise that Dr. Christenson makes the same case for vaccines. He acknowledges the enthusiasm the COVID vaccines have generated, particularly in the 60-and-older crowd. At the same time, there is a group of people who are hesitant, either because of concerns about safety or effectiveness.

“Unfortunately, there is misinformation out there, with some suggesting this vaccine was rushed to the market,” he said. “People don’t understand that these vaccines and the development of this technology has been evolving over the last 20 years. It was not a rush job; it’s just that the amount of money available to do the trials was much higher because the federal government put a lot of money into it.”

And what about people who refuse a vaccine because they don’t think COVID is a big problem?

“That’s where education comes in,” Dr. Christenson said. “There are a lot of people who are sitting on the fence. They are looking for information, but they don’t trust the government. If they hear it from a source they trust like Riley, they tend to listen a little more than they do to the FDA or CDC.”

Katie Wilson-Perez, whose two kids are 9 and 7, says they likely will get the vaccine when it becomes available to their age group, as long as their pediatrician or an infectious disease doctor at Riley recommends it for Sophia and Jonathin.

“At first I was a little concerned, but I got it and I was fine,” she said. “With Jonathin’s health issues, I think it would be best for him to get it.”

Jonathin smiles in front of the Riley Butterfly wall

Jonathin nearly died three years ago when bacteria entered his body and caused necrotizing fasciitis, commonly known as flesh-eating disease, a rare but potentially deadly infection that spreads rapidly and results in the death of parts of the body’s soft tissue. His right leg was amputated at the knee.

“I’m very worried about my kids getting the virus,” Wilson-Perez said, adding that her son’s illness was a wake-up call. “I’m not one of those people who thinks, ‘COVID can’t touch us, we’ll be fine.’ We never thought flesh-eating disease would happen to us.”


Seeing how the deadly virus has been politicized over the past year disturbs Dr. Christenson, like it does most healthcare experts.

“The most important thing to always emphasize is that there is a large number of people in the community who have not been vaccinated, so this is not the time to relax the use of masks or physical distancing,” the physician said last week. “The numbers of COVID cases in the state are going up, 12 to 13% in the last two weeks. I think we’re in the process of seeing another surge. How bad it will be we’ll have to see, but it’s coming.”

Relying on people to exercise personal responsibility only goes so far, he said. If everyone is to be protected, everyone needs to be vaccinated, but some will choose not to get the shot. Meanwhile, other strategies like mask use and physical distancing continue to be effective, he said.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb has ended a statewide mandate on mask use, effective April 6, replacing it with a mask advisory. Individual municipalities, however, are free to maintain restrictions. Marion County, which includes the city of Indianapolis, will continue to require masks and have occupancy limits in restaurants and bars. Masks are still required in all IU Health facilities.

Dr. Christenson said as a medical professional he has a responsibility to inform people, but he understands his limits.

“There is only so much I can do.”

Like everyone else, he would love to get back to pre-pandemic routines like eating out and traveling.

“I haven’t been inside a restaurant other than to get takeout for over a year. And you’re talking about somebody who went to a restaurant three times a week at least. You won’t see me in a restaurant for a long time. And for somebody who traveled a lot, I haven’t gotten on a plane in over a year and I’m not planning to.”

It’s not the time to let our guard down, he said, as he checks COVID infection rates daily from the Indiana Department of Health.

Currently, about 20% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated against the virus that has killed well over half a million people in this country.

Related Doctor

related doctor headshot photo

John C. Christenson, MD

Pediatric Infectious Disease