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Infectious Diseases

06 July 2020

Children could be facing long-term health effects indirectly linked to Covid-19

While the coronavirus has mainly had a mild direct impact on children's health, their future well-being could be negatively affected by the pandemic in other ways.

  • A Canadian analysis is warning that the youth may be facing a host of future social, health, and mental issues due to the pandemic 
  • Many families are delaying healthcare and vaccinations because of various factors like fear, finances and school closures
  • While the effects are still unknown, children should be monitored, and healthcare services be adjusted in line with lockdown measures 


Research has shown that children are far less affected by the coronavirus than adults, but the pandemic could be affecting their wellbeing in other ways – with long-term consequences. 

An analysis published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal warns of potential wide-ranging effects indirectly associated with the pandemic on children under the age of 19.

Families delaying healthcare

In the UK, Ireland and Italy, paediatric emergencies have gone down by 75% in the last few months, while a children’s hospital in Toronto has seen a 62% reduction rate in admissions compared to last year. 

READ: Signs of future diabetes may already lurk at the age of 8

Families are delaying healthcare due to various reasons linked to Covid-19: fear of contracting the virus in hospitals, financial constraints, limited access to closed-down services like clinics, and even when a single parent can’t find someone to look after their other children. 

There are also concerns that a parent would have to leave a child alone in the hospital due to pandemic regulations. 

However, the Canadian analysis did posit that the decrease in hospital admissions could be due to lockdown and quarantine regulations. Children are less exposed to various pathogens and accidents when not in school, hanging out with friends and taking part in extracurricular activities like sport. 

ALSO READ: Dramatic drop in SA’s immunisation rates

Reduced vaccinations

Another major concern is the decline in childhood vaccinations for diseases like mumps and whooping cough. The World Health Organisation has had to halt many of their global vaccination programmes due to limited resources and export of vaccines.

In South Africa, Department of Health figures from last week showed that national immunisation coverage in April during level five of the lockdown dropped from 82% in April last year to 61% for April this year. Most concerning is the sharp decrease in the coverage rate of the second dose of measles vaccine from 77% in April last year to 55% in April this year.

Without these vaccinations, the herd immunity against these diseases is decreased and could mark their comeback in society after the pandemic has died down. 

These gaps in healthcare will have lasting effects, as well as increase inequities and exacerbate existing conditions. Parents with extra-needs children will also struggle if financial constraints or physical distancing guidelines prevent them from accessing at-home care. 

READ: Is the Covid-19 pandemic worsening the mental health of children with ADHD?

Mental and social trauma

But besides the physical effects, the mental and social trauma of the pandemic could impact on children’s health into their adulthood. Studies have shown that prolonged stress has severe long-term consequences like increased risk of chronic disease, mental disorders, picking up unhealthy habits and obesity. 

Home life is also not the same for everyone. Lockdown regulations have created a surge in violence against women and children not just in South Africa, and welfare checks have also decreased due to social distancing measures. 

And with the upcoming economic recession, violence, anxiety and depression will increase, with children internalising the stress and struggle of their parents. 

Childhood development might also be affected, as developmental issues will be easily missed during this time and will have a lasting impact on children's futures. 

ALSO READ: Traumatic childhood increases lifelong risk for heart disease and early death

How to manage these effects

One of the most important measures we can take, according to the paper, is to keep track of these impacts on children and restructure healthcare and social services to better benefit at-risk youth. 

This could include more availability of at-home visits for vaccinations if virtual consultations don’t cut it, and finding alternative arrangements wherever possible.

Children and teenagers should also not be forgotten in pandemic messaging,  as well as being provided with easy-to-access services to address issues besides Covid-19.

Service providers should also try to be more cognisant of families’ home lives when explaining certain protocols.

“Health care practitioners should be able to explain the rationale behind any recommendations made or changes to primary and secondary care services, to allow families to assess whether all the factors that they themselves consider important are being taken into account,” according to the analysis. 

READ: Coronavirus in children: Could blood vessels explain the low number of complicated cases?

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