The jury is still out in terms of when schools will re-open – notwithstanding the proposed date of June 1 by the department of basic education – and research is showing that, contrary to popular belief, children aren’t “effective” spreaders of the Covid-19 coronavirus, and if they do get infected themselves, the disease would be mild.
This is according to Wits professor of vaccinology, Shabir Madhi, who spoke at a webinar held by MYHealthLive on Friday, which discussed the impact of Covid-19.
Keeping children from school may be causing more harm than good, Madhi said – particularly in children younger than seven, whose cognitive development and ability to learn are at their height.
Further to that, the stringent restrictions to the economy that are causing job losses and salary cuts are pushing families beyond the poverty line and could have worse ramifications for children in terms of food insecurity.
Pointing to the latest studies coming from the Netherlands, China and Australia, Madhi said children younger than 18 were shown not to be spreaders of Covid-19 and that even if the index case in a household was a child, that child was not infecting adults around them. On the contrary, adults were infecting children, but for some reason, which is not yet known, children were experiencing a mild form of the disease.
“The reasoning behind the early closure of schools [in South Africa] was guided by learnings from other respiratory viruses, including influenza. When it comes to seasonal influenza, what’s beyond doubt is that children are an important factor in the transmission of the virus,” Madhi explained.
“There was a programme in Japan years ago where they used to vaccinate school-age children against influenza. They decided to stop that programme and, as soon as they did, they began seeing many more adults who developed severe influenza.”
Other studies showed a strong temporal association – including in South Africa – between the opening of schools after the winter break and an increased number of influenza cases.
At the time the decision was taken to close schools, it was not known how Covid-19 would impact children or whether they would be important vectors in terms of disease transmission.
“Now we know they aren’t. In fact, all the evidence from other countries such as Netherlands, China – to an extent – and Australia is that children in schools are playing a very small role in infecting adults,” said Madi.
He said there should be more concern about children younger than two accessing vaccines to prevent measles and pneumonia – a service that had been hampered by the lockdown.
“For the past 24 years in Chris Hani-Baragwanath Academic Hospital, we’ve been studying viruses and the reasons children get admitted for pneumonia. Right now, we’ve investigated close to 300 children over three months who were admitted for the disease. We haven’t had a single case of Covid-19 among them, and 25% of the admissions were because of respiratory syncytial virus,” he said.
However, while maintaining that the strategy of keeping schools closed was not benefiting children, Madhi added: “We also can’t be reckless, as though everything were back to normal.”
He said schools would need to ensure physical distancing, that there was soap and water for handwashing, that teachers had sanitisers in their pockets, and that assemblies and other school gatherings were not permitted.