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Infectious Diseases

Updated 11 June 2020

Schools, children and Covid-19 risk – experts weigh in

Experts stand behind the opening of schools, citing that children under the age of 19 are highly unlikely to contract Covid-19 or transmit it.

  • In a panel discussion about schools opening, experts emphasised the low-risk of children under 19 when it comes to contracting and spreading the coronavirus
  • Even children with comorbidities like asthma and diabetes – with their condition under control – are deemed to be low-risk
  • Leading paediatric allergologist Professor Eugene Weinberg noted that only 1% of kids who contract Covid-19 have severe symptoms

South African children have slowly started to return to school this week, with many parents still wondering how safe it is in the face of Covid-19.

Experts, however, stand behind the opening of schools, citing that children under the age of 19 are highly unlikely to contract Covid-19 or transmit it. 

In a News24 Frontline panel discussion on Wednesday, Professor Eugene Weinberg – a paediatric allergologist – and Professor Heather Zar – a paediatric pulmonologist – weighed in on the health risks to children going back to school. 

READ: Children and Covid-19: What the latest study says

“Getting the flu is a higher risk than getting Covid-19 for kids,” says Zar, including dying from it. Children have a strong immunity to it, even those with comorbidities like asthma and diabetes – as long as the condition is well-medicated and under control. 

And if children with comorbidities do catch it, symptoms remain mild or kids may even remain asymptomatic. 

She also added that the coronavirus is far more like to spread in an office or grocery store than a school, and if a child catches it they are more likely to have caught it from their parents. 

For those who do contract the virus, only 1% have severe symptoms according to Weinberg, the rest having mild or no symptoms. They are also unlikely to spread it. 

He says many paediatric associations have put their weight behind sending children to school, including for their mental and social well-being. 

“It’s unusual for a child to die from Covid-19, but the ‘What if I’m the statistic?’ is the concern for many parents,” says Weinberg. 

ALSO READ: Kids with cancer not at greater risk for severe Covid-19

What studies say

Around the world, studies have shown resilience in children regarding Covid-19. According to research, less than 2% of reported infections in China, Italy and the US have been in people under the age of 18.

One case investigation published in the American Journal of Roentgenology (AJR) showed that most young patients who contract Covid-19 had normal lungs with little damage. 

While there have been some concerns about an abnormal autoimmune response called Kawasaki disease in children contracting Covid-19, research shows these also to be rare cases. 

There is, however, one study that suggested that obesity seemed to have had some influence in cases where children develop severe symptoms from Covid-19. 

SEE: Similar to adults, obesity raises kids' odds for severe Covid-19

Mask-wearing remains essential

The most important thing that both Zar and Weinberg encourage is for parents and teachers to be strict with children wearing masks as the best defence. 

It’s something that can be done by everyone – unlike physical distancing and handwashing that can be difficult in certain situations. 

Zar added that with smaller kids where mask-wearing can be problematic, opt for visors as an alternative, but notes that they are far less effective than masks. 

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