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The toll and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children and adolescents

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Posted: Thursday, September 16, 2021. 12:15 pm CST.

By Aaron Humes: The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has reminded of the need to address issues related to children and adolescents in terms of the COVID-19 pandemic, whether direct or indirect.

Nearly 2 million children and adolescents have been directly infected by COVID-19 in the first nine months of 2021, compared to 1.5 million last year. While children and young people generally experience mild or no symptoms, they can also develop severe illness.

PAHO Director Carissa F. Etienne said at a press briefing that COVID-19 has severely impacted the mental and physical health of children and adolescents in the Americas. She urged countries to take several specific measures to protect them, including safe reopening of schools.

“As more adults receive their COVID-19 vaccines, children – who are not yet eligible for vaccinations in most countries – are representing a larger percentage of COVID hospitalizations and even deaths,” Dr. Etienne said in a media briefing. “So, let’s be clear: children and young people also face a significant risk of disease from COVID-19.”

But there are indirect and secondary impacts hitting particularly hard, most glaringly the lack of in-person schooling, which could lead to permanently dropping out and lasting consequences.

“Experts agree that the pandemic has triggered the worst educational crisis we have ever seen in the region,” Dr. Etienne continued. She urged countries to focus on restoring health, education, and social services for school-age populations.

The pandemic has also pushed aside annual health checkups and routine vaccinations, checks for sexual and reproductive health and also mental health, with half of young people experiencing increased stress or anxiety during the pandemic but less access to mental health services.

Dr Etienne called on governments to safely reopen schools, accepting that there is no zero-risk scenario and paying attention to local epidemiological conditions and capacity to respond PAHO has developed detailed guidelines for safe reopening, including ensuring proper ventilation and sanitary conditions.

Children and adolescents should practice the proven public health measures: physical distancing, washing hands often, wearing masks in public, and avoiding crowded places. And they should also get tested if they develop symptoms or suspect they’re sick.

And countries should develop communications campaigns tailored for children and adolescents to ensure that they understand their risk of infection and ability to transmit COVID-19. “Too many children and young people still don’t think they’re at risk,” Dr. Etienne said.

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