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Covid-19 vaccination of children 'not a priority’ – top government adviser

While the US has begun vaccinating children from the age of five years old and upwards, this is not a priority for South Africa. Picture: File

While the US has begun vaccinating children from the age of five years old and upwards, this is not a priority for South Africa. Picture: File

Published Dec 12, 2021

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While the US has begun vaccinating children from the age of five years old and upwards, this is not a priority for South Africa. Picture: File

AT least 10 children are in intensive care units in hospitals across the country with Covid-19.

As the number of cases of Covid-19 positive children continues to increase during the fourth wave, questions are being asked about why they appear to be more susceptible to the Omicron variant, and whether vaccinations should be open to those younger than 12.

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In the Western Cape, health officials said at least 486 children have been diagnosed with Covid since the increase in cases was recorded at the beginning of November.

Provincial health department spokesperson, Mark van der Heever, said 40 of the children were admitted to hospital for treatment.

“Further investigation is needed to assess what proportion of the admissions with SARS-COV-2 (Omicron) in children are due to Covid-19 illness, and what proportion are Covid-19 diagnoses in children admitted for other reasons, such as surgery or other illness,” he said.

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“We do know that the (new) variant is more transmissible, but sequencing is ongoing, and while we wait for those results to return, we thus far have detected 16 cases with the Omicron variant.”

Executive member of the South African Paediatric Association, Professor Mignon McCulloch, said the latest figures showed that individuals under 19 made up 12.5% of all confirmed cases in the country.

“Of the kids that are being admitted in hospital, 50% are incidental. So they go in with a broken arm or [for] a tonsillectomy, and [because] all the children are now tested when they get into hospital [cases are detected],” she said.

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“It will look like there are quite a lot of hospital admissions, but in fact many of the children are pretty well, [but are] going in for surgical procedures and it is picked up incidentally.

“We had a meeting with all the paediatric intensive care doctors around the country [on Friday] and there were 10 children in total in the entire country, admitted to all the paediatric intensive care units combined; that is very few critically ill children. Those children who were admitted mostly had pre-existing comorbidities.”

McCulloch said that while Omicron was highly contagious, with reports claiming it was up to five times more infectious than the Delta variant, mild symptoms were seen in children.

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“It is important that parents do not panic; yes, children are also affected, but it still seems to be that people getting severely ill and admitted into intensive care are the older, unvaccinated people. Yes, there are children being infected by the virus, but very few need to be admitted to hospital for oxygen, and very, very few are needing to go to the ICU,” she added.

Professor Barry Schoub, chairperson of the Covid-19 vaccine ministerial advisory committee, said vaccinating kids was not a priority right now.

“Our highest priority remains the vaccination of the elderly and most susceptible members of our population. While we started vaccinating those between 12 and 17 years old, they are not our biggest concern,” he said.

“Natural immunity coupled with vaccine acquired immunity has helped us. We have good vaccine stocks, but infrastructure required for administering doses could become strained if we begin to reprioritise and stretch resources.”

The country’s vaccination roll-out consists of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccines.

On November 2, Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US, recommended that children five to 11 years old received the Pfizer-BioNTech paediatric vaccine.

“The vaccine recommendation would include about 28 million children in the US.”

The US was the first country to begin the roll-out for this age group.

Health Minister Joe Phaahla said that during the three-week period November 14 to December 4, there was an increase in admissions of children under five years old in the City of Tshwane, where the early resurgence of the fourth wave began.

“Children 18 years and younger comprised 21% of all admissions during this period. Data indicates an increase in both cases and admissions among children of all age groups, but no change in the proportion of children with Covid-19 who died,” he said.

Phaahla said although children made up 30% of the population, they only accounted for 12% of cases, 5% of hospital admissions and less than 1% of deaths.

“It is still not clear what is driving this apparent increase in the hospitalisation of children with Covid-19. Time and further investigations will provide answers and there is need for caution but not alarm.”

Michelle Groome, head of public health surveillance and response at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), said all provinces were experiencing increases, initially in younger age groups but now moving into the older age groups.

“For the week of November 28 to December 3, 24.9% of those tested positive, while the prior week had a positive percentage of 8.5%. We are beginning to witness a surge in hospitalisations in every province but the Northern Cape. Most of the hospital admissions are not vaccinated individuals,” she said.

*Additional reporting – Weekend Argus.

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