By Dr. Sabrina Kitaka
I have had the opportunity to interact with hundreds of parents throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. One of their most common questions has been, “Doctor, do you think my baby could have COVID-19?”
During the most recent wave, children are affected by COVID-19 in roughly equal numbers as adults. However, infected children typically don’t become as sick as adults, and some do not show any symptoms at all.
While children are less likely to become seriously ill, there are risks that we should all be aware of and some steps you can take to keep you and your family safe.
Which children are most at risk from COVID-19?
The children most at risk from COVID-19 have pre-existing comorbidities like cancer, congenital heart disease, sickle cell disease, and chronic renal failure. Children with underlying conditions like obesity, diabetes, and asthma are also at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19.
Children with any of these conditions need to be protected from exposure to COVID-19 as much as possible. If your child does not have any of these conditions, their risk of serious illness is relatively low.
However, children can be a potential driver of infection rates because they are more likely to have mild symptoms and be asymptomatic virus carriers. The possibility of children spreading the virus is the primary justification for keeping them away from crowded places like schools to slow the infection rate (flattening the curve).
During lockdowns and school closures, it is vital that we all, as parents, care for our children’s physical, mental, and emotional health. We can do this by encouraging them to continue school activities, engage in physical exercise, and practice maximum levels of hygiene like handwashing.
Why do children react differently to COVID-19?
The answer is not yet clear. Some experts think that children might not be as severely affected by COVID-19 because they often get common colds caused by other coronaviruses. Their immune systems might therefore be primed to fight off COVID-19 infection. It is also possible that children’s immune systems interact differently with the virus than adult immune systems, but research on this question is still ongoing.
In Africa, our children are more regularly exposed to various microbiomes. Presumably, they have an expanded load of gut microbiota as a result. African children may thus have an even more robust immune system to combat COVID-19 infection. However, research on this topic is still limited.
What can I do to protect myself and my children from COVID-19?
The Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is available and approved for children aged 12 and older. Several other companies have started enrolling children as young as 12 in vaccine clinical trials. Studies with even younger children will also begin soon. The list of vaccines approved for children will likely grow in the months ahead.
Besides vaccination, the best thing you can do to protect your children is to follow existing public health guidelines. These guidelines include washing your hands often, practicing social distancing, cleaning and disinfecting your home, and wearing a cloth face mask in public.
It’s also essential to stay on top of your child’s immunization schedule. Don’t allow fear of the virus to prevent your child from getting their vaccines to prevent other serious illnesses, which in turn would increase their risk from COVID-19.
By Sabrina Bakeera-Kitaka
Department of Paediatrics, Makerere University College of Health Sciences, Fellow of the Uganda National Academy of Sciences (UNAS).