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A child is tested for Covid-19 in Johannesburg, South Africa

A young child gets a Covid-19 swab test in Johannesburg, South Africa on January 5, 2021. (Photo: Luca Sola/AFP via Getty Images)

Health Minister Says 'Highly Transmissible' Omicron Hitting Young Children Hard in South Africa

In South Africa's worst-affected province, children under the age of five now make up the second-largest group being admitted to hospitals.

Julia Conley

Top government health officials in South Africa briefed the press on Friday regarding the Omicron variant, warning that the country's newest wave of Covid-19 infections has included an alarmingly sharp rise in hospital admissions among young children under the age of five.

"The younger children, younger than 12, who were not eligible for vaccination—none of their parents, except for three, were vaccinated."

In Gauteng province—which includes Johannesburg—patients under the age of five are now the second largest group being admitted to hospitals, after patients over the age of 60, according to Dr. Waasila Jassat, a public health specialist at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).

Rising hospital admissions have been seen across all age groups in South Africa since the latest wave began in mid-November, but "the trend that we're seeing now, that is different to what we've seen before, is a particular increase in hospital admissions in children under five years," Jassat told reporters.

The South African Health Ministry released a graph showing that in the first two weeks of the fourth wave in Tshwane Metro, hospitalizations of children up to age four topped 100, compared to less than 20 during the third wave.

The prevalence of infections among young children demonstrates the importance of vaccination for people who are eligible, Jassat noted.

According to pediatricians in Tshwane, every child between the ages of 12 and 18 who has been admitted to a hospital were unvaccinated, despite being eligible to receive vaccines.

"The younger children, younger than 12, who were not eligible for vaccination—none of their parents, except for three, were vaccinated," said Jassat.

The lack of vaccinations among children under age five, who are not yet eligible, could also be contributing to hospitalizations, she added.

Data scientist and physician Dr. Jorge Caballero noted that children with the Omnicron variant in South Africa are being admitted to hospitals with gastrointestinal symptoms.

According to South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla, the Omicron variant has been shown to be "highly transmissible, including in people who have already been vaccinated"—but he noted that unvaccinated people are disproportionately filling hospital beds.

Only about 42% of South Africans have at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, Phaahla said. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are being used in the country.

In addition to serving as a potential warning to the rest of the world about the Omicron variant—which has spread to countries including the U.S., Spain, and Brazil—the press conference on Friday demonstrated the need for the World Trade Organization to waive patent protections for Covid-19 vaccines, said author and activist Kelly Hayes.

Phaahla pointed out that the Omicron variant appears to be "less severe" than Delta and other previous Covid-19 variants, but made clear that South African officials are alarmed by the rapid spread of infections in the current wave.

The health minister said the government is recorded more than 11,500 new cases on Thursday, having skyrocketed from fewer than 2,500 daily cases when the variant was first announced last week.

"If you have a look at the slope of this increase, you can see that we really are seeing an unprecedented increase in the number of new cases in a very short period of time, really just climbing right up," said Michelle Groome, a public health surveillance official at the NICD.

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