Director of the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), Dr Carissa Etienne said on Wednesday, COVID-19 has severely impacted the mental and physical health of children and adolescents in the Americas.
Dr Etienne, therefore, urged countries in the region to take several specific measures to protect them, including safe reopening of schools.
She said over 1.5 million cases of COVID-19 were reported among children 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 hospitalisations and even deaths,” Dr 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.”
The PAHO director said an array of secondary impacts caused by the viral illness are hitting children and adolescents particularly hard.
“The virus indirectly has consequences and is hindering their growth and development, and jeopardising their chances at a bright future,” she said.
“With each day that children go without in-person schooling, the higher the likelihood that they drop out and never return to school. 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.”
Dr Etienne urged countries to focus on restoring health, education and social services for their school-aged populations and noted that children and adolescents are also missing annual check-ups and routine vaccinations because of widespread disruptions to health systems.
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.