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It’s time for children’s lives to return to normal


Children with chronic and complex medical conditions were relatively more likely to be admitted to hospital. Interestingly, asthma alone did not increase risk, a finding that has been confirmed elsewhere. In addition, almost all the evidence (however imperfect) points to the fact that the Omicron variant is less severe in its direct effects than prior variants.

Thirdly, the risk of “long COVID” in children is often overstated. While our own research is yet to evaluate the long-term outcomes for children in NSW infected by SARS-CoV-2, the international literature strongly suggests children are at much lower risk of “long COVID” than adults. Many of the persistent symptoms commonly associated with “long COVID” are actually attributable to the effects of recurrent lockdowns and are also prevalent in non-infected children. The great majority of children will recover completely from COVID-19 within weeks.

A child receives the Pfizer vaccine in Germany. Australian children aged five to 11 can be vaccinated from this week.

A child receives the Pfizer vaccine in Germany. Australian children aged five to 11 can be vaccinated from this week.Credit:Getty

Finally, schools are much more controlled environments than shopping centres or nightclubs. Principals and teachers have done an excellent job of implementing procedures to limit transmission risk. A significant body of evidence shows that transmission in schools rises and falls simply as a reflection of transmission in the wider community and schools do not significantly amplify transmission. In Australia, transmission of COVID-19 in educational institutions has been more likely to occur from adults to children, rather than in the other direction. As adults are now a highly vaccinated population, this risk is further mitigated.

We therefore conclude that SARS-CoV-2 infection in children, especially those aged under 12, is similar in severity to other respiratory viruses that children encounter, like RSV and influenza. Schools now have practices in place to limit respiratory virus transmission that are better than ever before. As a result, the extraordinary intervention of restricting face-to-face learning is not justified. We do not do it in response to the annual epidemics of these other viruses and nor should we any longer for COVID-19.

This is all the more important given the enormous impact the pandemic has had on children’s education and development over the past two years. The argument that children’s lives – their schooling, sport, creative and social activities – be paused to reduce community transmission and protect adults is unsustainable. All Australian adults have had the opportunity to access vaccines that are highly effective at reducing hospitalisation (more effective than influenza vaccines, even with Omicron). We also have several effective treatments for COVID-19, with more being developed.

The pandemic has driven waves of fear and anxiety that overwhelm and exhaust us all. This is particularly true for our children, who we all want to protect. The impact COVID-19 has had on their education and development has been enormous, threatening to reverse at least a decade of progress in addressing child health and poverty. Globally, 470 million children are unable to access remote learning and more than 100 million children are falling into illiteracy due to school closures.

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The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation recommends school-aged children be vaccinated and vaccines will be available in Australia for five- to 11-year-olds this week. This should bring additional hope, and will be further supported by getting the percentage of teenagers vaccinated up over 90 per cent.

This year we must prioritise children’s lives in our community response to the pandemic, and that begins with maintaining face-to-face learning for all. Further shielding of children is disproportionate to the acute or long-term effects of infection with SARS-CoV-2. We also need to remember that as we protect our own children, it is important to ensure we protect the world – because on our interconnected planet, until we are all safe, none of us are safe.

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