SL had its schools closed more than any other country in the world- Prof. Malavige
Pointing out that western countries kept their schools open despite having larger number of COVID-19 cases, Prof. Neelika Malavige raised concerns whether we could wait till every child is vaccinated before sending them to school.
Gateway College organised a special session by Prof. Neelika Malavige, Professor and Head of the Department of Immunology and Molecular Medicine, University of Sri Jayawardenapura, on ‘The COVID situation in Sri Lanka and the impact on Schooling’ on Friday (03).
This virtual session was open to the entire Gateway community; teachers, parents, past pupils and students.
How bad is the current COVID-19 situation in the country?
The number of COVID-19 deaths being reported in the country have remained the same, despite an evident reduction in the number of cases. However, Prof. Malavige explained that these deaths are from infections reported 02- 03 weeks ago.
She added that the current lockdown appears to be having an effect with the number of calls to the COVID-19 call centres decreasing and that the effect of this will show in 2- 3 weeks’ time.
Taking into consideration current statistics, she claimed that the country is gradually stabilising.
"The only reason we are worried about COVID is because it kills," she said, adding that in any other context, a mere fever and common cold would not be feared. However, the coronavirus causes severe pneumonia with patients ending up in the ICU desperately needing ventilation.
Risk of death depending on age
Speaking on the topic, the Professor said children have a lower risk of dying of COVID-19 than the older population.
Citing figures obtained through research by the University of Cambridge, Prof. Malavige said that if one million children are infected, 13 could die whereas if one million 65- 74-year-old adults are infected, 22,000 could die. Worse, in a population of one million individuals aged above 75 years, 120,000 people could die.
Most countries vaccinated their older population first owing to this reason.
"We should be more worried about our parents than our children," she said.
She additionally mentioned that the risk factors for developing severe COVID in children are the same as adults; obesity, diabetes, neurological disorders, immunocompromised children, babies aged 0- 3 months and those above 20 years old.
Impact of school closure
The education sector is currently strained contemplating the reopening of schools.
Sri Lanka had its schools closed more than any other country in the world, despite having comparatively lower number of cases and deaths. Schools in other countries opened even before children were vaccinated.
For example, in November 2020 when UK had large waves of COVID-19, schools were open. However, schools in Sri Lanka remained closed. In May 2021 only 23 countries in the world had school closures and Sri Lanka was one of them. At present, in September 2021, only 15 countries including Sri Lanka have complete closure of schools.
Emphasizing on the grey areas of online learning, Prof. Malavige mentioned online education produces poor attendance, as a large population of children in the country lack necessary facilities to attend online classes.
Further, attending school online deprives children of vital milestones needed for social development, resulting in devasting and long-lasting affects on children.
Vaccination- a powerful shield against the coronavirus?
"A fully vaccinated 80-year-old now has the same risk of dying as an unvaccinated 50-year-old," the Professor said.
While this is true, she added that although vaccination does not entirely rule out the possibility of infection, it is the best measure to protect one's self from the virus.
Vaccines have not been tested on children aged below 12 years, however, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been approved for use for children aged above 12 years.
Addressing concerns regarding safety of vaccines for children, the Professor assures that vaccines are safe for children aged between 12- 18 years, with very rare side effects.
Side effects include cases of myocarditis reported after the use of Pfizer and Moderna. This is a case of heart inflammation and is observed more in young males than females. Approximately 56- 69 cases are expected from a population of one million 12- 17-year-old males.
Other known side effects include anaphylaxis, observed after the use of Pfizer and Moderna.
However, if any side effects are observed after obtaining the vaccine, the child is advised to report the incident and use another vaccine.
"COVID is here to stay with us and regardless of being vaccinated, we may contract the virus," she said, implying that being vaccinated is better than not being vaccinated at all.
Offering advice on other preventive measures, Prof. Malavige recommended young children to wear surgical masks while older children can wear either a surgical mask or a KN95 mask.
False information about China’s Sinopharm vaccine
Clearing doubts regarding the efficacy of the Sinopharm vaccine, Prof. Malavige said that the China-manufactured vaccine is registered by WHO and therefore, a trustworthy vaccine for use.
Further clarifying doubts about the Sinopharm vaccine, she claimed that information regarding entry requirements to certain countries have been distorted. While most individuals believe that some countries do not allow entry for those vaccinated with Sinopharm, it is untrue. Individuals are allowed to enter, however, they must follow quarantine procedures upon arrival as opposed to entering the country after obtaining a preferred vaccine.
Such rules exist owing to an insufficient amount of studies and data conducted on the vaccine and not because the it is disapproved by other countries.
Final decision on reopening schools?
Quoting UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore and UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay, Prof. Malavige claimed "reopening schools cannot wait."
She concluded the insightful session questioning the audience, "Are parents really okay with keeping their children home till January?"