As federal health authorities probe whether two COVID-19 vaccines could be linked to rare cases of heart inflammation in teens, parents should put the potential risk in perspective with actually getting the disease, says one of the nation's top pediatric heart doctors.
"The incidents of this are tiny compared to the number of people who are getting vaccinated," Dr. Juan C. Alejos, the medical director of the pediatric heart transplant and cardiomyopathy program at UCLA Health, told TheStreet. "It's so rare that we forget how bad COVID can be."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will hold an emergency meeting on Friday to look at the rare potential side effect that has sent hundreds of teens and young adults to the hospital. The side effect was only found in connection with the Pfizer (PFE) - Get Report and Moderna (MRNA) - Get Report vaccines.
But Alejos said cases of heart inflammation that have been seen in connection with the vaccines so far appear relatively "mild."
Alejos is the director of the pediatric pulmonary hypertension program at UCLA Health, a clinical professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and is president and founder of the nonprofit Hearts with Hope Foundation. Here, he discusses the risk of myocarditis and pericarditis, two types of heart inflammation, and the risk of cardiovascular problems in kids who've actually had COVID-19.
The following is edited for clarity and brevity. The interview was conducted by phone on Sunday.
TheStreet: I wanted to start by asking about myocarditis and how common it was to see it in this age group prior to the COVID 19 pandemic?
Alejos: Myocarditis is an inflammation of the heart muscle. It's generally not something we see routinely. But it's a known condition -- which can be caused by many viruses -- and right now nobody knows for sure that this is being caused by the vaccines. It's happening even in people who have not been vaccinated. ...
In my mind, what people need to remember, is that this type of mild myocarditis and pericarditis is no comparison what-so-ever to the effects that the coronavirus has had, which were miles ahead of what we're seeing now that's causing all this publicity.
TheStreet: And that's a good point, that just getting COVID-19 can lead to cardiovascular problems and what you're seeing now that's possibly linked to the vaccines is much less severe than what you can see following infection with the novel coronavirus, correct?
TheStreet: But a lot of these cases that you read about in the press are with teenagers who were otherwise healthy and they then end up in the emergency room for treatment. The condition appears to be resolved relatively quickly, but do you have any concerns about potential long-term problems?
Alejos: I do not have any concerns; I would still heavily advocate for the vaccines, even with all this information.
TheStreet: What about kids who might have special circumstances, such as those with Down syndrome. Would this change your view at all?
Alejos: No, the patients that I would have most concern about would be patients who are immunocompromised -- patients who have undergone chemotherapy or undergone a transplant -- and the bigger concern for them is not the risk of a vaccine, but whether it will take hold ... and they develop an immunity after their vaccine. So, not the side effects, but how effective the vaccines are in the immunocompromised.
TheStreet: Early on in the pandemic, we heard over and over again that kids were not really harmed by the novel coronavirus, but later studies showed that some children could have severe disease and some even died. Do you think that earlier view could come back to bite us, and that parents will say, "Hey, I don't think COVID would harm my child, so why do I want to take any risk with the vaccine?
Alejos: Unfortunately, I think you're probably right. A lot of the early publicity that said COVID only affects seniors is at least part of the problem as to why we have a not so insignificant group of people who don't want the vaccine. They feel like there's no risk to them, but I think the data that we found subsequently is that it does affect children in different ways.... (What we've seen in kids) was not significant lung issues, but significant cardiac issues.
TheStreet: Now, as kids go back to school next year and back to organized sports, should people be aware of these COVID-related cardiovascular risks?
Alejos: Definitely. A lot of pediatric centers with patients who have been COVID positive -- especially college and high school athletes -- have had a pretty rigorous followup to ensure that there was no subsequent cardiac effects. ... I think that is right now where we're at. We're seeing that with patients who come through from UCLA who've been COVID positive. We typically would see those patients before all this -- those patients who play sports and have chest pain -- but I think we may have a much lower threshold for doing an extensive work up ... to look at how their heart may be impacted. ...