COVID-19 and children: we can do this together
By Tom Davis, World Vision International Global Lead for Health and Nutrition
When my daughter was six weeks old, we almost lost her to a respiratory virus. Needless to say, I understand the panic that some parents may be feeling right now as COVID-19 spreads to more and more communities. It’s hard being a parent at the best of times, too. But we become informed and we learn things along the way, including how to live with a certain amount of anxiety and to trust our ability to protect our children from more serious future harms.
COVID-19 and children
Amidst the cacophony of coronavirus conversations, many are wondering just how dangerous the infection is to children. The good news is that so far children seem to be remarkably resilient to the virus. Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and in China looked at 72,000 COVID-19 cases from China and found that only 1 in 500 (0.2%) children aged younger than 19 years died from the virus and there was not a single child death among children 0-9 years. Very few hospitalisations were also recorded.
However, it is early days and the picture could change as more research is conducted. As this health emergency unfolds, we cannot let our guard down. The medical community is still unsure why children seem to fare better when they have the virus. They may simply be fitter and more able to fight infection and recover.
Still, this relatively encouraging news is no reason to be complacent. The impact of the virus on children, especially in poorer parts of the world, is not yet known, simply because – for the most part – COVID-19 has mercifully not spread to much of sub-Saharan Africa, where we see countries with weak health systems, or to regions of the world with large refugee populations.
And even if the mortality rate for children remains low, we can expect major impacts if young children lose their caregivers. We learned valuable lessons from the HIV/AIDS crisis about the substantial risks that children face when they are orphaned by a killer disease.
Impact on families
We can’t be complacent because we know grandparents, elderly neighbours, family members with other severe illnesses, and those with low immunity to disease are at higher risk of dying. The same research that reported zero deaths among children also found that nearly 15% of those aged over 80 died following COVID-19 infection. We know those living with asthma, diabetes and heart disease are also at greater risk of succumbing to the virus.
We must act with limited data. We do not fully understand the degree to which children may be transmitting COVID-19 to their caregivers and others, but parents and caregivers must be vigilant about encouraging children to develop habits that will reduce the chance that they will get the virus or pass it on to those who may be at much higher risk of serious disease.
This is when common good hygiene becomes a critical practice. We encourage children to regularly and thoroughly wash their hands with soap or sanitizer many times a day and to apply good respiratory hygiene: coughing or sneezing into their elbow or even better into a tissue that then immediately gets safely thrown away.
Children will also be put at higher risk as more and more hospitals and intensive care units become overwhelmed, and fewer beds combined with medical staff under severe strain, translates to less capacity to treat patients, including children, with other medical conditions.
COVID-19 and emergency measures
Many countries have implemented emergency measures that include school closures, event cancellations and social distancing. In Canada, as of March 17, 2020, the provinces of Ontario and Alberta declared states of emergency, while several other provinces declared states of public health emergency. These declarations carry with them preventive measures like closing restaurants, schools and daycares, and prohibiting gatherings of more than 50 people including libraries, places of worship and theatres.
Public health experts are watching COVID-19’s spread into additional countries in sub-Saharan Africa and fear what may happen when it reaches refugee camps and dense urban settlements since a shortage of hospitals and ICU facilities could mean life or death in those places.
The mortality rate resulting from COVID-19 in these countries could be greater because advanced and even basic medical care is much less available and the prevalence of other diseases such as malaria, pneumonia, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis will also mean that many people – including children – will be fighting COVID-19 with compromised immune systems and complicating factors.
When children in these places lose their mums and dads, grandparents, other caregivers and elderly loved ones in much greater numbers, they will also experience much more vulnerability. In the poorest places, some children will simply not be able to survive and may resort to desperate measures that include having to beg on the streets, leaving school to work or even having to sell themselves. We have seen it before with HIV/AIDS, Ebola and other killer diseases. We must act now to avoid this loss of life.
What World Vision is doing
World Vision is hard at work trying to keep children, families and communities safe. In Asia, we have been working for weeks to promote prevention behaviours and to educate communities on how to keep themselves safe, providing protective equipment to health workers, engaging with government health authorities and planning next steps on how to respond.
Our teams are taking steps to reduce the impact of COVID-19 and using experience and expertise gained during other disease outbreaks, including the Ebola outbreaks in West Africa (2014) and the DR Congo (2019), and Zika (2016) in Latin America. During these crises, World Vision partnered with local health authorities and our network of more than 220,000 community health workers to provide assessment and health education, to combat rumours and misinformation and to help protect children and their families affected or impacted by the disease.
This is not a time to panic. The containment efforts to date have bought us some time and we need to use it wisely to prepare every country and every family. We can fight this pandemic together.