It's unlikely that you haven't yet heard about the Coronavirus that is spreading from China, but in case you've missed it, here are the critical details:
- Coronaviruses are a large group of viruses that are common among animals, and human coronaviruses are common throughout the world.
- They manifest in the form of a mild to moderate upper respiratory tract illness, much like the flu.
- This strain is called the 2019 Novel Coronavirus, or Covid-19.
The virus originated in China, and now that we have our first confirmed case in South Africa parents are understandably worried.
How vulnerable are our kids?
People of all ages can be infected by the new coronavirus, but it seems that children are not succumbing to the virus in the same way older people are.
Anyone with a pre-existing medical condition like asthma, diabetes or heart disease may be more vulnerable to getting very sick from the virus.
It has been reported that children under the age of 12 have displayed minimal symptoms and are much less likely to be admitted to hospital for treatment.
Experts haven't yet discovered why this is the case, but it may be due to their developing, and stronger, immune systems.
So, will we be keeping our kids home from school?
Around the globe various countries have banned large gatherings of people, in a bid to stop the spread. Sporting events have been cancelled, and some public spaces such as the Louvre Museum in Paris, were closed.
Japan, Hong Kong, mainland China, Italy, Iran and Vietnam have closed schools, and some US schools have shut for a few days.
Closer to home, Elijah Mhlanga, Media Liaison for the Department of Basic Education, said the Department of Health is the lead department in this regard. "We will be informed accordingly by the relevant departments regarding the steps to be take," he told Parent24.
At a media briefing on 3 March the Western Cape Health Department said that at this point in time there is no definite plan as to closing schools, but as the situation develops they will communicate with schools and parents.
Therefore, it seems likely that if the virus were to cause an outbreak in South Africa, school closures are a possibility.
What this means for pupils and parents
In some cases, schools only partly close, or manage start and end times to minimise contact between classes and grades.
A complete school closure could negatively impact disadvantaged and vulnerable students, who rely on school for a meal or a safe place to be during the day.
Parents who cannot take time off of work to watch younger kids at home may also struggle to find alternate childcare, and those who are forced to take time off may lose income, or risk their jobs.
While pupils are out of school they will also be falling behind the curriculum.
During the 2014 Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone the government provided educational radio programmes to listeners five days a week while schools were closed, maintaining a link to the curriculum for the duration. This might be an option here.
A UK study also showed that the longer a child is out of school the less likely they are to go back once school starts again.
If the virus reaches South Africa, what can we do to prevent an epidemic?
Dr Wayne Smith, Head of Disaster Medicine and Special Events, told the media at the briefing that there was no need to panic.
Additionally, the government has procedures in place to tackle an outbreak and to minimise the spread of disease.
These measures include what is known as social distancing, when interventions prevent large groups of people from coming together. This can include cancelling large events and closing schools, and has proved effective in limiting the spread of flu-like viruses flu in the past.
The department also has a risk assessment program in place, and is completing both wet and dry runs in preparation.
Dr Smith reassured parents that they should not worry, but to continue with basic hygiene such as hand washing and coughing etiquette.
If, however, you suspect your child is infected you should take them to the doctor. He added that symptoms such as a dry cough and shortness of breath will manifest very quickly.
- Sudden onset of fever
- Difficulty breathing
While there is not yet a vaccination available, you can reduce your chances of becoming infected by:
- Washing your hands
- Avoiding touching potential infected areas
- Avoiding touching your face, mouth or eyes
- Avoiding close contact with infected people
- Encouraging those around you to cough or sneeze into a tissue
If you're concerned, you can call the General Public Hotline on 011 386 2000, which operates from Monday to Friday, 08h00 to 16h00.
Sources: Western Cape Government (Health)
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