Our kids, it seems, are bearing the brunt of Australia’s third wave of the disease, driven by the highly virulent Delta strain.
Parents are having to make agonising decisions about whether to send their children to daycare – which is still permitted in NSW even if parents are not essential workers – and they are also looking for answers on how soon their kids might be able to get vaccinated.
Nine.com.au has asked infectious diseases paediatrician Robert Booy some questions about the issues worrying parents the most.
Dr Booy is a professor of paediatrics and child health at the University of Sydney. He is also a senior professorial fellow at the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance (NCIRS) at Westmead Children’s Hospital.
Why are so many kids getting infected?
Looking at the numbers of children getting infected lately, it could be natural to assume that Delta is targeting children.
However, this is not the case, Professor Booy says.
The highly infectious nature of the Delta strain means that not just more kids but more adults are getting infected with COVID-19. However, because most kids are not yet vaccinated in Australia, it means the proportion of children getting infected with the virus has increased, Professor Booy said.
“Delta is not picking on children. It’s just picking on humans because it’s so very transmissible,” he said.
A lack of hygiene and the inability of children to social distance very well could also be a factor when it came to transmission, Professor Booy said.
“Children will interact with each other and when they’re preschoolers, especially, they’re a bit snotty and grotty. They’re not very good at washing their hands or social distancing,” he said.
“Therefore, they could be more likely to spread infection once they have got it.
“But, in the main, it’s more likely that an adult will infect a child than the other way around, however, it does occur both ways.”
Are kids getting sicker with Delta?
While it’s clear more children are getting infected thanks to the Delta variant, the majority are still showing mild or no symptoms of the virus.
“The numbers that die from COVID who are children is tiny,” Professor Booy said.
“I believe we don’t have yet one child death in Australia directly attributable to COVID, yet 1000 adults have died.”
Professor Booy said he had both analysed the data and spoken to paediatricians and infectious disease specialists in the UK – where Delta has been widespread in the community for far longer than Australia.
“The UK are way ahead of us in vaccine uptake and they are way ahead of us in experiencing Delta for the last six months,” Professor Booy said.
In the UK, there were not a lot of children getting seriously ill from Delta, he said.
“Indeed, when they had Alpha in December and January they had more paediatric admissions then than they have now.
“In the UK, they have three times our population. In one year, there were 25 deaths in children, and they had over 100,000 deaths in adults.
“For the last six months, I’ve checked the data, and the numbers are still small.”
Where COVID-19 became a real concern for children was when they also had a chronic medical condition, such as Down syndrome, immune deficiency, cerebral palsy and heart or lung problems, Professor Booy said.
Can children get vaccinated in Australia?
Most children in Australia are not yet able to be vaccinated.
Approval has not been given for children aged under 12 to be administered the Pfizer vaccine.
However, the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation (ATAGI) has just recently approved the Pfizer vaccine for vulnerable children aged 12 to 15, including those with underlying health conditions and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
The group has flagged it will look at expanding eligibility to all 12 to 15-year-olds within the next two months.
Should Australia be speeding up the vaccine rollout for kids?
Not at all, Professor Booy says.
“We shouldn’t be rushing something that for children is not a severe illness,” he said.
“For medically at risk kids with a chronic illness, yes get them vaccinated if they are between 12 to 15 years.
“But for healthy kids, we don’t need to rush.”
Professor Booy said there was a lot Australia could learn about the safety of vaccines in children from the US, where millions of kids aged 12 and up have already been vaccinated.
“We’ve got the experience in the real world of five million children in the US being vaccinated in the last few months.
“ATAGI can check that the safety and the effectiveness in teenagers in the United States is good. Once we have checked real world experience of five million kids in north America, then we can go about our business of vaccinating our younger teenagers, and knowing that we’ve got good safety and effectiveness data.”
What is the best way to protect our kids now?
The most effective way of keeping our children safe was to form “a shield or a chain of protection around our kids”, Professor Booy said.
“We can do this by making sure all adults from the age of 16 and above are vaccinated,” he said.
“Older brothers and sisters who are 16 and above and young adults, they’re in the front line of transmission – the 16-39 age bracket.
“This is because they’re the ones most likely to be in public-facing workplaces.
“Teenagers and young people who are in their 20s like to go to parties and hug and kiss other young people.
“Older people in that age bracket may have children themselves, and therefore do more mixing with other families with children.
“So, all of those reasons are why 16-39-year-olds are being focused on to get as fast an immunisation uptake as possible.”
Should I send my child to daycare?
While daycare centres in Victoria have now been closed to all but essential workers, NSW parents face the difficult decision on whether to continue sending theirs as case numbers increase.
While all parents had to take into account their personal circumstances, Professor Booy said it was important to remember the overwhelming majority of COVID-19 cases in children were mild.
“If the daycare centre is doing sensible things with handwashing and masks it can be a good place to send children so parents can do essential work,” Professor Booy said.
“Daycare may lead to some children catching an infection but they usually get it so mildly it is like getting the cold and then they have got some immunity.
“Daycare kids have a very low rate of getting severe illness.”
What do we know about long COVID and kids?
Again looking to the UK for indicators, Professor Booy said the statistics on children and long COVID were encouraging.
“The paediatricians that I used to work with in the UK have just published a report about the incidents of long COVID in children, and it is less than two percent,” he said.
“It is more often occurring in high school than primary school students.
“You can compare that to adults, they have got a long covid rate of 5-15 percent.”
In cases where long COVID symptoms occurred in children they generally only lasted a few months, Professor Booy said.
Contact reporter Emily McPherson at [email protected]