Doctors have highlighted the growing risk of Covid-19 infection to young children amid a global surge in case numbers.
The emergence of the highly contagious Omicron variant in recent months is posing a threat to the health of children, a larger proportion of whom will be unvaccinated.
Countries are expanding vaccination campaigns to include minors – Australia began to immunise children aged 5 to 11 this week – but such drives are largely limited to the 5-11 and 12-17 groups.
In the UAE, the Sinopharm vaccine is available to children as young as 3. The Pfizer-BioNTech shot has been approved for those aged 5-11 but is not yet available.
Experts believe the Omicron variant is milder in adults than the Delta variant, but concerns have been raised over its effect upon children.
In Israel, where a fourth vaccination booster campaign is under way, the Sheba Medical Centre in Tel Aviv has been forced to reopen its specialist Covid paediatric centre owing to demand.
“The numbers of corona-stricken children here are indeed rising,” said Steve Walz, a spokesman for the centre.
“The situation, as expected, has taken a turn for the worse.
“Children of all ages are suffering from corona, mostly with mild to moderate symptoms.”
The number of Covid-19 patients requiring treatment at the centre, the largest hospital in Israel, has risen from 10 to 59 in one week.
Of those, 20 were reported to be in a serious condition in its recently reopened Corona Critical Care Unit.
There are four children and six pregnant women receiving specialist care. Two patients with Covid-19 died at the centre this week.
Israel has reached record numbers of daily infections with 54,515 cases from more than 360,000 tests completed on January 10.
As a precaution, the centre has reopened a specialist paediatric ward for children with Covid-19, with a capacity for 50 beds.
“All those hospitalised have background illnesses or underlying medical conditions, and are of all ages,” Mr Walz said.
“Very few (adults) are unvaccinated or have had only two shots; the majority have had three shots.
“They were admitted to the hospital because they had underlying conditions and could not fight off symptoms at home.
“At least 25 per cent are in serious condition and we expect the numbers to rise.”
Lowered immunity puts children at risk
In Abu Dhabi, doctors said more children were falling ill this winter owing to the usual circulating cold viruses, flu and Covid-19.
“In the past months, we have seen a higher number of children getting sick, perhaps due to the flu season,” said Dr Ranya Khairy Ammar, a specialist in general paediatrics at NMC Royal Medical Centre in Shahama.
“At the same time, children remain at risk of Covid-19 infection, so it is very important for parents to boost their immune system and stay healthy.
“Children have been staying indoors more and this may have contributed in lowering their natural immunity.”
As younger children and infants generally suffer more than older children with cold and flu viruses, they sometimes develop wheezing and respiratory distress, with a prolonged cough.
Bronchiolitis is another health issue affecting the airways of younger children, usually those under 5.
Nebulisation, where liquid medication is turned into a mist to directly target the lungs, can help improve breathing and most children recover quickly.
“Covid-19 is a communicable disease that is still present and kids are at risk of exposure and infection,” Dr Ammar said.
“It is encouraged that children rejoin social activity gradually and follow health and safety precautions to defend their exposure to diseases and build their immune system.”
Doctors in the US, where Omicron is in wide circulation, said the new variant appears to target the patient’s upper respiratory tract, causing airways to swell.
Although not a major concern in adults, it is a problem in younger children with narrower airways.
It has led to an increase in cases of croup, where children are plagued with a barking cough, and bronchiolitis.
About 30 schools in Dubai reverted to distance learning at the start of 2022 after concern over rising numbers of Covid-19 cases.
Dr Sheela Menon, principal at the Ambassador School in Mankhool, said children were unlikely to return to face-to-face learning until at least January 17.
“Compared to last year, we are seeing a lot more children getting infected with Covid or quarantining as a result of a close contact,” she said.
“That has led to an apprehension in parents about their children attending school.
“There is a resistance towards face-to-face learning now.
“Most of our children are younger – of primary age – and we have seen a change in behaviour, with a lot more positive cases, which was not the case last year.”