Higher hospital admissions among children during a fourth wave of Covid-19 infections in South Africa that is driven by the Omicron variant should prompt vigilance but not panic as infections have been mild, a health official said on Saturday.
A large number of infants admitted with Covid-19 last month in Tshwane, the metropolitan area that includes the capital Pretoria, raised concerns that the Omicron variant could pose greater risks for young children than other coronavirus variants.
Scientists have yet to confirm any link and have cautioned that other factors could be at play.
Ntsakisi Maluleke, a public health specialist in the Gauteng province that includes Tshwane and the biggest city Johannesburg, said that out of the 1,511 Covid-positive patients in hospitals in the province 113 were under nine years old, a greater proportion than during previous waves of infection.
"We are comforted by clinicians' reports that the children have mild disease," she told Reuters in an interview, adding health officials and scientists were investigating what was driving the increased admissions in younger ages and were hoping to provide more clarity in the coming two weeks.
Since only a small percentage of South Africa's positive Covid-19 tests are sent for genomic sequencing, officials do not yet know which variants the children admitted to hospital have been infected with.
Ms Maluleke said healthcare workers could be acting out of an abundance of caution. "They would rather have a child under care for a day or two than having a child at home and complicating... but we really need to wait for the evidence," she said.
She said many Covid-19 patients in Gauteng were reporting "non-specific" flu-like symptoms like a scratchy throat, as opposed to more easily identifiable markers like a loss of taste or smell.
But she urged parents and pregnant women, another cohort that has seen more hospital admissions recently, not to take flu-like symptoms lightly and to get tested in case intervention is needed further down the line.
"The public needs to be less fearful but vigilant," she added.
Despite a recent influx of admissions, Gauteng's dedicated Covid-19 bed occupancy was still only around 13 per cent, Ms Maluleke said, adding that contingency plans were in place should capacity become stretched.
Scientists are still working to find out what severity of illness is caused by the Omicron variant, first detected in southern Africa last month and since seen in more than 30 countries, and whether it may be more resistant to existing vaccines.