A marked rise has been seen in the number of children admitted to hospital in South Africa – the epicentre of the new coronavirus Omicron variant – but cases are “mild”, a public health expert has said.
The increase has sparked concerns the latest COVID-19 strain, which has spread rapidly around the world, could pose greater risks for youngsters.
However, the authorities in South Africa said the surge should trigger vigilance, not panic, with no link established and the potential impact of other factors.
It is also difficult to draw conclusions about the implications for other countries, such as the UK, given South Africa has a much younger population that is less likely to be vaccinated.
Ntsakisi Maluleke, a public health specialist in Gauteng province which includes the capital Pretoria and the biggest city Johannesburg, said that out of the 1,511 COVID-positive patients in hospitals in the area, 113 (7%) were under nine-years-old, a greater proportion than during previous waves of infection.
But she said: “We are comforted by clinicians’ reports that the children have mild disease.”
Health officials and scientists were currently investigating what was driving the increased admissions in younger ages and hoped to be able to provide more details shortly, she said.
Since only a small proportion of South Africa’s positive coronavirus tests are sent for genomic sequencing, officials do not yet know which variants the children admitted to hospital have been infected with.
Pointing out healthcare workers could be acting out of caution, she said: “They would rather have a child under care for a day or two than having a child at home and complicating… but we really need to wait for the evidence.”
She also said many COVID-19 patients in Gauteng were reporting “non-specific” flu-like symptoms like a scratchy throat, as opposed to more easily identifiable signs like a loss of taste or smell.
But she urged parents and pregnant women, another group that has seen more hospital admissions recently, not to take flu-like symptoms lightly and to get tested in case.
“The public needs to be less fearful but vigilant,” she added.
Despite a recent influx of admissions, Gauteng’s dedicated COVID-19 bed occupancy was still only around 13%, Ms Maluleke said, adding that contingency plans were in place should capacity become stretched.
Scientists are still working to find out what severity of illness is caused by the Omicron variant, first detected in southern Africa last month and since seen in more than 30 countries, and whether it may be more resistant to existing vaccines.