The “highly transmissible” Omicron variant of COVID-19 has disproportionately hospitalized kids under age 5 as it tears through South Africa, health officials in the country said Friday.
The new strain of the coronavirus — which had largely not caused serious illness in young children previously — has led to a dramatic spike in severe cases in the age group, South African government medical adviser Waasila Jassat said at a press conference.
“The week-on-week increase we’re seeing in cases and admissions is higher than we’ve seen it before. We’ve seen quite a sharp increase [in hospital admissions] across all age groups but particularly in the under 5s,” Jassat said of the Gauteng province area, which includes Johannesburg and has been at the epicenter of the spread of the new variant.
“The incidence in those under 5 is now second-highest, second only to those over 60. 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 5 years,” she said, according to the Daily Beast.
Jassat said the Omicron variant — which has at least 50 mutations and is being closely monitored by world health officials — may have evolved to target kids under 5 during the pandemic’s so-called “fourth wave.”
“We’ve always seen children not being very heavily affected by the COVID epidemic in the past, not having many admissions. In the third wave, we saw more admissions in young children under 5 and in teenagers, 15 to 19, and now, at the start of this fourth wave, we have seen quite a sharp increase across all age groups, but particularly in the under 5s,” she said.
Jassat, who revealed graphs showing an alarming increase in hospitalizations, said the development may be due to an “immunity gap” caused by a lack of vaccinations in the area.
Between Nov. 14 and Nov. 27, the time period when Omicron was first detected, more than 100 kids under 5 were admitted to hospitals with COVID-19 in the city of Tshwane, she said. By contrast, in May, fewer than 20 children were hospitalized.
As more adults get vaccinated, kids are becoming the ones who are “getting sick and need to be admitted,” she said.
In the vast majority of cases at the area’s Tshwane hospital, pediatricians said the parents of hospitalized kids were not vaccinated.
“And the younger children, younger than 12, who were not eligible for vaccination, none of their parents, except for three, were vaccinated,” Jassat said. “[It shows] the value of vaccination in the adult protecting the children in the homes.”
In South Africa, just over 42 percent of all adults have received at least one vaccination dose, said Health Minister Joe Phaahla.
“This variant is indeed highly transmissible, including in people who have already been vaccinated,” said Phaahla.
Cases have increased to 9,000 cases per day, up from “2,465 new cases last Thursday when this variant was announced,” he said.
At the press conference, epidemiologist Michelle Groome also reported that overall daily hospital admissions in the worst-affected parts of Gauteng province have soared from 19 to 78 in recent weeks.
“This is the highest we’ve ever seen it since the start of the pandemic,” she said.
The startling increase in severe infections comes as Omicron, labeled “a variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, has spread to at least 23 other countries, including the US.