'Omicron is not mild ' in study focusing on children's toll

The Omicron variant of the Covid-19 virus has been linked to more hospitalizations, severe complications and deaths of young children than previous strains of the virus, suggesting Omicron may not be as mild as initially thought, according to a study conducted by the University of Hong Kong and Princess Margaret Hospital.

Upon reviewing data on child hospitalizations, researchers found that cases were far more severe during Hong Kong's Omicron-fueled fifth wave.

A total of 1,147 children aged 11 and under were hospitalized due to Covid from February 5 to 28, with more than 80 percent of them aged five and under.

Omicron presented a greater need for intensive care, with 21 children - or 1.83 percent - admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit compared with only one in all of the city's previous outbreaks combined.

During the 22 months from the start of 2020 to November, 737 children aged 11 and under were hospitalized due to Covid - a far cry from the figures logged up during the fifth wave.

Omicron results in a higher number of seizures among unvaccinated children and targets the upper airways more than previous variants and influenza, researchers said in a preprint paper submitted to The Lancet on March 21.

"The intrinsic severity of Omicron BA.2 is not mild as evident by the fatality and severe complications among uninfected and unvaccinated children."

After a long run of keeping infection rates among the lowest in the world, Hong Kong was overrun with Omicron, which has been linked to some 7,500 deaths. The majority of the deaths were among elderly and unvaccinated residents.

One reason why some children are experiencing severe symptoms could be due to a lack of exposure to the coronavirus over the past two years, researchers said, adding children under 11 were only approved for vaccinations in February while those under three still aren't eligible.

"Vaccination should be rapidly implemented for children who are eligible, in particular for those under three years old," researchers said.

Among the 1,147 child-hospitalization cases, four died,including threewithout preexisting health concerns. Significantly, none of the three were vaccinated against the virus.

The fatality rate of Omicron during the February stage of the study was 0.35 percent for hospitalized children, higher than influenza at 0.05 percent. However, researchers conceded the figure is likely an overestimate because many children with mild symptoms were cared for at home.