It is now established that it is possible for people of any age to be infected with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19). The world is still learning how much the pandemic affects children.
There have been relatively few cases of COVID-19 reported among infants and children. All the same, the pandemic has upended the lives of children and their families as health systems buckle, borders close, and schools and businesses shutter.
As COVID-19 spreads, so has misinformation, fuelling discrimination and stigma. The United Nation Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is working with health experts to promote facts over fear, and bring trustworthy guidance to parents, caregivers and educators.
It said “We are on ground in more than 190 countries, partnering with front-line responders to keep children healthy and learning, protected from sickness and violence, no matter who they are or where they live.
Prof Sunday Omilabu is of College of Medicine, University of Lagos, Virologist, Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH) and Principal Investigatory Consultant, Lagos State Bio Bank. He said it has not been established that the virus is transmittable from an infected mother to the child:
“When you talk about pregnant women and breastfeeding, infected mothers, who we have had from our little experience during this COVID-19 outbreak, have no virus in their breasts milk.
“This is not far-fetched because the virus is a localised infection in the respiratory tract. It takes a long time before the virus moves into the bloodstream. Again, it takes a long time before the virus moves into other body fluids and that is what we have seen in this instance.
“More studies need to be done to prove that the virus can get into the foetus. All we know for now is that it is localised, and will take a long while before the virus can get into the foetus.
“It is an instance where we have viremia that will make it much easier for the virus to gain access into the foetus. Viremia is a medical condition where viruses enter the bloodstream and hence have access to the rest of the body.
“The best prevention, however, for yourself and family is to keep observing standard precautionary measures, including hand washing with soap and clean running water, use of hand sanitisers and maintaining social distance to guard against COVID-19.
“Many people may have COVID-19 without showing signs and symptoms. There is possibility for us having the community transmission. That is why it is very important that we isolate ourselves and the children as well as maintain social distancing to prevent possibly acquisition of the virus.”
Guidance on protecting children
The World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), have issued new guidelines to help protect children and schools from transmission of COVID-19.
The guidance provides critical considerations and practical checklists to keep schools safe. It also advises national and local authorities on how to adapt and implement emergency plans for educational facilities:
“In the event of school closures, the guidance includes recommendations to mitigate against the possible negative impacts on children’s learning and wellbeing. This means having solid plans in place to ensure the continuity of learning, including remote learning options such as online education strategies and radio broadcasts of academic content, and access to essential services for all children. These plans should also include necessary steps for the eventual safe reopening of schools.
“Where schools remain open, and to make sure that children and their families remain protected and informed, the guidance calls for: providing children with information about how to protect themselves; promoting best hand washing and hygiene practices and providing hygiene supplies; cleaning and disinfecting school buildings, especially water and sanitation facilities; and increasing airflow and ventilation.
“The guidance, while specific to countries that have already confirmed the transmission of COVID-19, is still relevant in all other contexts. Education can encourage students to become advocates for disease prevention and control at home, in school, and in their community by talking to others about how to prevent the spread of viruses.
“Maintaining safe school operations or reopening schools after a closure, requires many considerations, but if done well, can promote public health.
“For example, safe school guidelines implemented in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone during the outbreak of Ebola virus disease from 2014 to 2016 helped prevent school-based transmissions of the virus.
“UNICEF is urging schools, whether open or helping students through remote learning to provide students with holistic support. Schools should provide children with vital information on hand washing and other measures to protect themselves and their families; facilitate mental health support; and help to prevent stigma and discrimination by encouraging students to be kind to each other and avoid stereotypes when talking about the virus.
“The new guidance also offers helpful tips and checklists for parents and caregivers, as well as children and students themselves. These actions include: monitoring children’s health and keeping them home from school if they are ill; encouraging children to ask questions and express their concerns; and coughing or sneezing into a tissue or your elbow and avoid touching your face, eyes, mouth and nose.”
How to protect your family
Director General, WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom, said for parents, caregivers and community, understand basic information about COVID-19, including its symptoms, complications, how it is transmitted and how to prevent transmission. Stay informed about the virus through reputable sources such as UNICEF and WHO and national health ministry advisories.
“Be aware of fake information/myths. Recognise the symptoms of COVID-19 (coughing, fever, shortness of breath) in your child. Seek medical advice by first calling your health facility/provider and then take your child in, if advised.
“Remember that symptoms of COVID-19 such as cough or fever can be similar to those of the flu, or the common cold, which are a lot more common. If your child is sick, keep them home from school and notify the school of your child’s absence and symptoms.
“Request reading and assignments so that students can continue learning while at home. Explain to your child what is happening in simple words and reassure them that they are safe.
“If your child isn’t displaying any symptoms such as a fever or cough it’s best to keep them in school unless a public health advisory or other relevant warning or official advice has been issued affecting your child’s school.
“Instead of keeping children out of school, teach them good hand and respiratory hygiene practices for school and elsewhere, like frequent hand washing, covering a cough or sneeze with a flexed elbow or tissue, then throwing away the tissue into a closed bin, and not touching their eyes, mouths or noses if they haven’t properly washed their hands as well as washing hands properly.”
Helping children cope with COVID-19
Listing ways in which parents/teachers and caregivers can cushion effect of COVID-19 stress, WHO DG said:
“Children may respond to stress in different ways. Common responses include having difficulties sleeping, bedwetting, having pain in the stomach or head, and being anxious, withdrawn, angry, clingy or afraid to be left alone.
“Respond to children’s reactions in a supportive way and explain to them that they are normal reactions to an abnormal situation. Listen to their concerns and take time to comfort them and give them affection, reassure them they’re safe and praise them frequently.
“If possible, create opportunities for children to play and relax. Keep regular routines and schedules as much as possible, especially before they go to sleep, or help create new ones in a new environment. Provide age-appropriate facts about what has happened, explain what is going on and give them clear examples on what they can do to help protect themselves and others from infection. Share information about what could happen in a reassuring way.
“For example, if your child is feeling sick and staying at home or the hospital, you could say, you have to stay at home/at the hospital because it is safer for you and your friends. I know it is hard (maybe scary or even boring) at times, but we need to follow the rules to keep ourselves and others safe.”
Omilabu said Nigerian scientists have not been able to develop vaccine for the treatment of COVID-19: “The development of medical vaccine apart from being cost intensive, requires a lot of resources, needs an enabling environment. Nigeria as a country is not buoyant enough for such venture.
“And, of course, the manufacturers are also not encouraged to bring their resources to carry out such development. It is a huge capital-intensive project and our industrialists so to say, are not ready to put their money into such venture that would take several years before it can be licensed for commercial purposes.
“It takes minimum of 10 to 15 years before a good vaccine is made available. Those are some of the issues why medical scientists in Nigeria are not venturing into vaccine production,” he stated.