Face-to-face classes less risky for children under 12 — PAHO


Face-to-face classes less risky for children under 12 — PAHO

Senior staff reporter

Thursday, November 19, 2020

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THERE is emerging evidence that face-to-face classes during the novel coronavirus pandemic may not be as risky as feared, at least not for children under 12.

Director of the Department of Communicable Diseases at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) Dr Marcos Espinal says the evidence suggests that pre-teens do not very effectively transmit the disease to each other while in school. There are, however, still concerns that they could pass on the disease to family or other members of their communities.

Dr Espinal was addressing questions from journalists, yesterday, during PAHO's weekly media forum about the correlation between face-to-face school and spread of the virus. The issue is timely, as the local education ministry is in its first week of a two-week pilot of face-to-face learning, the outcome of which is being closely watched as it will determine the next steps for the country's educational system.

In making his point, Dr Espinal pointed to Utah in the United States, where it has been observed that there is no correlation between the spread of the virus in that state and the opening of schools.

“In fact, the schools do not contribute to transmission,” he noted.

However, he pointed out that the level of risk is influenced by factors such as transmission rate within an area. He suggested that where there are high levels of transmission it may be better to wait and conduct virtual learning until the situation abates.

Locally, 12 primary schools and five high schools are participating in the trial run, as the Government attempts a phased roll-out of the physical resumption of classes.

Education Minister Fayval Williams has assured that the decision to reopen schools is backed by sound public health assessment and data, and that a stringent monitoring mechanism is in place for the pilot. Schools officially resumed classes — virtually — in early October, after plans for physical resumption were twice aborted as the number of COVID-19 cases started accelerating in August.

Yesterday Dr Espinal pointed to countries like Vietnam and Zambia which have reopened schools and have not seen an increase in transmissions.

While he noted that there is still a need for “more evidence [and] more facts”, he said indications are that schools are not high transmission venues for pre-teens. He cautioned, however, that older children “can transmit to adults, and you have to be careful”.

Economies around the world have been rocked by COVID-19, which has infected millions and left thousands dead. The race is on to find an effective vaccine but there has been resistance in some quarters.

During the forum, PAHO Assistant Director Dr Jarbas Barbosa urged the region to remain vigilant against raging rumours and conspiracy theories that have the potential to disrupt vaccination efforts and impede the COVID-19 response.

“We call on countries across our region to help build the trust needed for these upcoming vaccines by providing transparent, accurate information about the vaccine development process, as well as its safety and efficacy. We must all stand up against misinformation as these rumours have an impact on people's perceptions and attitudes toward a COVID-19 vaccine. This will not only waste valuable time and resources, but it will also cost lives,” he advised.

Dr Barbosa pointed to the region's falling vaccination rates for other severe diseases such as polio and measles, which have been further impacted by COVID-19 disruptions, with a decrease in demand for vaccination services.

According to the assistant director, this year nine countries in the Americas have reported a total of 8,479 cases of measles, including eight deaths, and five countries reported 56 cases of diphtheria, among them 16 deaths.

“Both of these diseases are fully preventable with vaccines,” he stressed.

He added that last week PAHO and UNICEF began the purchasing process for COVID-19 vaccines by inviting global vaccine manufacturers to apply to become suppliers for the 186 countries that have joined the COVAX facility.

The facility is the vaccination arm of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT) accelerator, which is a global collaboration mechanism for fast-tracking the development, production and equitable access to tests, treatments and vaccines for COVID-19.

He said that by the end of 2021 the facility aims to quickly and equitably deploy at least two billion doses of quality COVID-19 vaccines.

PAHO reports that since the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic more than 23 million people in the region have been infected with COVID-19 and more than 680,000 have died from the virus.

North America remains a significant driver of new infections, Dr Barbosa said, with continued acceleration of cases and more than one million new infections reported in the last week.

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