Parents are naturally fearful and anxious for their children with the reopening of daycare centres, preschools and schools amid the global Covid-19 pandemic.
Medical experts, however, believe that children could attend preschools and schools safely by adhering to safety measures and standard operating procedures (SOPs).
They say studies show that children are less susceptible to Covid-19 infections compared with adults as children constitute less than six per cent of positive cases and make up a smaller proportion of severe cases and deaths.
They also say the onus is on parents to ensure their children’s safety by educating them on the practices of the new normal.
Consultant paediatrician and neonatologist Dato’ Dr Musa Nordin said children rarely had severe symptoms of infection, were less likely to transmit the virus and were rarely responsible for household transmissions.
He assured parents that the guidelines would protect their children’s health and safety, adding, however, that children should be taught basic precautions and reminded to follow them.
This, he said, included practising social distancing of at least 1m from each other, washing hands regularly and thoroughly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, using a hand sanitiser if soap and water are not available, sneezing into a tissue or sleeve and using face masks.
“Older children would better understand the restrictions (in schools), but parents must stress upon them to be always vigilant against Covid-19 and not to allow personal convenience or peer pressure to ignore the precautions.”
Dr Musa also stressed the importance of vaccinating children to protect them from influenza.
He said going back to school exposed children to higher risks of catching the flu through contact with classmates, teachers and school personnel and while travelling on school buses or public transport, where they would be exposed to an unknown number of potential carriers.
“Protecting schoolchildren against the flu virus will reduce sick days so that they can catch up on their studies after more than three months of staying home.
“Besides, as the flu has similar symptoms to Covid-19, vaccination could help eliminate the possibility of their having to be unnecessarily tested or treated for influenza.
“The World Health Organisation recommends that annual flu vaccinations are continued during the pandemic to reduce the risk of vaccine-preventable diseases (VPDs) and support the fight against Covid-19.
“As getting sick with the flu may lead to complications, staying healthy is the best form of defence against Covid-19.”
Dr Musa said since it took about two weeks for antibodies to develop and provide effective protection against flu, parents are urged to vaccinate their children to protect them from flu when the time came for them to return to school.
Consultant paediatrician and paediatric cardiologist Datuk Dr Zulkifli Ismail said parents should reinforce the importance of practising hand hygiene, physical distancing and not
sharing utensils, toys or stationery.
After three months of undergoing the Movement Control Order and extensive discussions on Covid-19, he said, many children in primary to secondary schools would understand the significance of washing hands and practising social distancing.
However, he added, they needed to be reminded of the new normal practices.
“When they’ve adopted these practices into their routine, it’ll be easy to reinforce. Children are now used to wearing face masks when leaving their homes, and this should not be used to tease each other at school.”
Dr Zulkifli, who is Immunise4Life chairman, said parents should ensure their newborns and children get immunisation shots as per the recommendation of the National Immunisation Programme to prevent the outbreak of VPDs.
“Other than the influenza vaccine, children should receive their two mumps-measles-rubella doses and additional chickenpox vaccinations, lest we see severe outbreaks in the last quarter of this year and the beginning of 2021, especially measles.
“Many parents have lapsed on these scheduled and additional vaccinations due to the MCO and also the fear of taking their children to healthcare facilities.”
On the SOPs at schools, Dr Zulkifli voiced concerns over the lack of guidance on teachers’ staff rooms and offices, and how commonly used items like photocopy machines, staplers and files were to be handled.
The guidance on personal protection for students was adequate, he said, adding that alcohol-based hand sanitisers should be made available in every classroom.
“This pandemic has given us an opportunity to teach social and community responsibility to students. This is the best time to teach real civic-consciousness outside of the textbooks.”
Malaysian Public Health Physicians’ Association president Datuk Dr Zainal Ariffin Omar said children aged between 6 and 18 had among the lowest risks of Covid-19 in terms of infection and death.
However, he said, parents should continue to educate and remind children of the guidelines under the new norm and provide children with balanced meals and nutritious foods, including fruits such as bananas, guavas, melons and oranges, and foods high in protein, and urge them to drink plenty of water.
Dr Zainal said parents could take additional measures by providing children with home-packed meals, plain water, face masks and hand sanitisers.
He also said schools should not allow food traders within the school and children should be advised not to buy street food, especially from unhygienic food handlers.
He said children were encouraged to shower and wash their clothes immediately upon returning from school or at least wash their hands, feet and face wih soap when they returned home.
Dr Zainal said the new normal would see new challenges and one could expect a few cases of clusters involving schools, but this was not a concern if the SOPs were followed.
He said it was also important to monitor children’s mental health.
“Keep talking to them about Covid-19 prevention, symptoms and signs, and the importance of the new normal. But don’t overkill it, especially by using scare tactics.”
Source: NST, 20 June 2020