Hospitals must prepare for a massive influx of babies and children for care this winter due to a post-lockdown ‘immunity gap’, the medical journal The Lancet has warned.
Published during the summer several leading, experts have warned that the lack of exposure to respiratory hazards for children during the period of Covid-19 lockdowns has weakened their immune response to influenza.
“Decreased exposure to endemic viruses created an immunity gap – a group of susceptible individuals who avoided infection and therefore lack pathogen-specific immunity to protect against future infection,” said Dr. Kevin Messacar, associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Children’s Hospital Colorado, and Rachel Baker, an epidemiologist and assistant professor at Brown University.
Doctors in the US are particularly concerned about an outbreak of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). While the pathogen is quite common in normal times the influenza is highly acute this year says Messacar due to the “degree of societal changes” during lockdowns.
According to the US based Centers for Disease Control (CDC) most children are inflicted with RSV before they turn two with infants gaining mild immunity during breastfeeding when mothers pass along antibodies through breast milk.
However, due to covid preventative measures from excessive hand washing to social distancing children have been unable to gain contact with such pathogens thus weakening their immune response this time around. The Lancet also warned that RSV was infecting older children.
There is currently no vaccine available to fend against the virus. Preliminary trials, however, are currently underway.
An outbreak of regular flu is also on the horizon with more children presenting with severe symptoms than in years prior according to Melbourne paediatrician Margie Danchin.
“This year, around half of hospitalised flu cases have been in people under 19 years of age, including in infants and children younger than 5 years of age,” said Prof Danchin.
Writing in the Irish Examiner last week public, Dr Catherine Conlon warned that in the past decade almost 5,000 children were admitted to hospital due to complications of flu in Ireland, with around 200 children requiring treatment in intensive care and 40 children passing away.
Dr Conlon, who is also a former director of human health and nutrition at Safe Food, has advised parents to vaccinate their children with the nasal spray flu vaccine through their local GP or pharmacy this winter. She also encouraged pregnant mothers to avail of the same inoculation in order to protect their babies from the flu.
“Children may get some mild side effects, similar to flu, but they will not get flu from the vaccine,” she said.