While the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron can spread more easily than previous coronavirus variants, data shows the risks to young children are quite low. Evgenij Yulkin/Stocksy United
- Recent reports have classified the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron as a “variant of concern.”
- This is partially due to the fact that BA.2 spreads more easily than previous variants.
- However, data suggests that the risk to young children under five years old is very low.
On February 22, 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a statement related to the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron subvariants BA.1 and BA.2.
This report stated that the BA.2 subvariant should continue to be classified as a “variant of concern.”
According to S. Wesley Long, PhD, a researcher at Houston Methodist Hospital in Houston, Texas, this is because this subvariant is more contagious than the BA.1 subvariant of Omicron, which itself is very contagious.
However, while parents of young children should be cautious about the spread of the BA.2 variant, data shows that their risk is quite low and there are several things parents can do to reduce their risk even further.
What are the risks from BA.2 for kids under 5 years old?
As far as the risk to children from the BA.2 subvariant, Dr. James Campbell, Professor of Pediatrics in the Center of Vaccine Development and Global Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine said, “It likely continues to pose similar risks as BA.1, but it will take time to know definitively.”
Mark Cameron, PhD, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, added, “Any unvaccinated individual risks a moderate to severe course of COVID-19, even children, especially if they have other health issues.
Cameron said that even a mild course of COVID-19 can cause fever and gastrointestinal symptoms, which can be tough on children.
MIS-C (multisystem inflammatory syndrome) is also a concern, he said.
This rare condition involves inflammation in various body parts, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes, and gastrointestinal tract. It has been associated with COVID-19 infections and can be serious or even deadly.
“Lastly, we’re learning how long some of the effects of the illness can linger as long-haul COVID-19,” said Cameron.
Previously, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had also reported that the Omicron variant (which includes BA.1 and BA.2) had caused weekly COVID-19-related hospitalizations among children under the age of five to peak on January 8 of this year.
Due to the contagiousness of Omicron, hospitalizations at this time had risen to five times the level reported while the Delta variant was dominating.
Health experts have stressed that vaccination is the best way to reduce the risk of COVID-19 for children five and older.
Yet Pfizer and BioNTech recently delayed their application to approve their COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use in children under five, citing the need to gather more information about the effectiveness of second and third doses.
BA.2 risk for kids by the numbers
It should be stressed, however, that the actual risk to children under five is still quite low.
At the peak of Omicron, 14.5 children out of every 100,000 needed hospitalization. In contrast, 2.9 per 100,000 were being hospitalized during the peak of Delta.
Further broken down by age group, the numbers were:
- Babies younger than 6 months – 68.1 per 100,000 during Omicron vs. 11.1 during Delta
- Children 6 months to 2 years – 16.9 during Omicron vs. 3.3 during Delta
- Toddlers 2 to 4 years – 4.7 during Omicron vs. 1.4 during Delta
Out of the children who were hospitalized, only a very small minority of cases were fatal. During both surges, the death rate was about 0.5 percent.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, about 363 children under the age of five have died from COVID-19, including deaths that occurred during the Delta and Omicron surges.
BA.2 subvariant isn’t new
Additionally, medical experts say one thing to keep in mind about the BA.2 subvariant is that it isn’t completely new.
Long said, “It’s a variant which arose around the same time as BA.1 Omicron – what most people have been calling just ‘Omicron’ the past few months.”
What’s really changed is that BA.2 is now taking over a greater proportion of cases, likely due to the fact that it spreads more easily and quickly than BA.1. This, in turn, is fueling an increasing number of cases around the globe.
“The extent of the increase in cases driven by BA.2 remains to be seen,” said Long.
How to help reduce the risk to young children
The experts that spoke with Healthline agreed that it is important for people to continue doing what they have been doing throughout the pandemic in order to keep kids as safe as possible from this particular variant.
The best way to keep children five and older safe, according to Campbell, is a combination of vaccination and simple interventions such as social distancing and masking.
It should be noted that the WHO does not recommend masks for children five and under. However, it may be protective of younger children if the older children and adults around them wear masks.
Campbell further noted that antibodies that were gained from either a previous case of COVID-19 or from vaccination, both offer some protection against the virus.
However, he pointed out that it’s difficult to estimate just how strong protection is for those kids who have recovered from previously developing COVID-19 and remain unvaccinated, compared to those who have been vaccinated.
“Vaccination protects best against severe disease (hospitalization, intensive care admission, intubation, ECMO, and death),” said Campbell, “but also protects against mild and moderate disease, just not as well.”
In order to protect those who can’t yet receive a vaccine, such as children under the age of five, Cameron said it’s important that everyone participates.
“Each time we release most of our basic public health precautions, the conditions align for a new surge,” he said.
“To protect our most vulnerable, particularly our youngest children, older adults, and people with other health issues, get vaccinated and boosted if you’re eligible.”
Cameron also pointed out that continuing to wear masks offers another layer of protection.
Cameron further recommends that people monitor local infection rates, test often, and seek a doctor’s advice if they or their children develop COVID-19.