23 Mar 2022

How do we protect our youngest against Covid-19?

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 23 March 2022
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Reuben and Catherine Saunders have been doing everything they can to protect their baby son Caleb from getting Covid-19. Photo: The Detail/supplied

While Omicron is a more mild variant of Covid-19, are we doing enough to keep under-fives safe from it? One public health expert says no. The Detail asks whether we've left our youngest population behind in our response to the virus.

Adults, teenagers and children can all wear masks and get vaccinated against Covid-19, but under-fives can't.

Ministry of Health figures show that children up to the age of nine have made up over 10 percent of infections over the course of pandemic - that's more than 50,000 covid-19 cases. About eight percent have ended up in hospital.

Have parents been given the right information about the seriousness of Covid-19 for young children?

Julie Bennett, a senior research fellow at Otago University's Department of Public Health, says no.

"I think there has been a lot of focus around the fact that it can be quite mild.

"I think there hasn't been so much discussion around some of the rare side effects - and they are rare - and then some of the unknowns of the long term effects."

Although Covid-19 is less severe in under-fives compared to older age groups, and Omicron is less severe than Delta, Bennett is concerned about possible complications from it, like multisystem inflammatory syndrome, and the potential for children to have 'co-infections' with other respiratory illnesses.

RSV spread across the country last winter, overwhelming hospital emergency departments. Bennett says with the borders reopening, it's likely we'll see higher cases of RSV and other viruses like the flu, which we haven't really had in the last two years.

Overseas, in places like the United States, paediatric hospitalisations for Covid-19 are peaking at levels higher than any other time during the pandemic and just this week in Australia, a two-year-old with no known underlying health issues died from the virus.

Bennett says there are things early childhood centres can do to protect babies and toddlers as much as possible. She says it's important to get on top of it before winter arrives.

"The strategy has been opening the windows for ventilation, particularly for the under five-year-olds. That becomes a lot harder when the weather is too awful to go outside and it's too awful to open windows," says Bennett.

First time parents in the Omicron wave 

Auckland couple Reuben and Catherine Saunders welcomed their first child Caleb into the world last month.

"Everyone tells you how hard it is and you know it but once you experience it you're like, 'oh yeah, it is really hard," says Catherine.

Omicron has thrown another spanner into the works. The couple have been trying to limit their contact with other people.

"The amount of cases that there are just means that we won't take him out anywhere," says Reuben. "If we can hold off on him catching it for a while then we will."

Catherine is also fully vaccinated and boosted.

"We've done our part and we're doing what we can to protect him," she says.

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