PAHO recommends measures to protect children from the pandemic’s indirect and direct effects
More than 1.9M children and adolescents reported infected with COVID-19 in 2021
WASHINGTON, DC — Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Director Carissa F Etienne said yesterday 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.
Etienne said over 1.5 million cases were reported in the region last year, while more than 1.9 million have already been reported in the first nine months of this year. While children and young people generally experience mild or no symptoms, they can also develop severe illness.
“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,” 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, in addition, an array of secondary impacts are hitting children and adolescents particularly hard, the PAHO director detailed.
“The virus indirectly has consequences and is hindering their growth and development, and jeopardizing their chances at a bright future,” she warned.
Etienne emphasized the negative impact of not attending school in person.
“With each day that children go without in-person schooling, the higher the likelihood that they drop out and never return to school,” she said.
“For some of the most vulnerable children — particularly for our girls — this can have lasting consequences.
“Experts agree that the pandemic has triggered the worst educational crisis we have ever seen in the region.”
She urged countries to focus on restoring health, education and social services for school-age populations.
Children and adolescents are also missing annual checkups and routine vaccinations due to widespread disruptions to health systems.
“Half of young people have experienced increased stress or anxiety during the pandemic, yet mental health services and support remain out of reach for many,” Etienne said.
Sexual and reproductive health services have been disrupted in more than half of countries in the region, and lockdowns and economic disruptions have increased the risk of domestic violence that can make homes unsafe for children and adolescents.
To reduce negative impacts on young people, countries should do “everything they can to safely reopen schools”, Etienne advised.
Noting that “there is no zero-risk scenario”, she said national and local authorities should decide when to open or close schools, depending on 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.
The PAHO director also said 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,” Etienne said.