The number of South African children younger than nine admitted to hospital with Covid-19 has overtaken the proportion of patients aged over 80 for the first time, the country’s biggest health insurer said.
During South Africa’s fifth wave of coronavirus infections from April 13 to May 27, 17% of all Covid-19 related admissions were children in that age group, Johannesburg-based Discovery Health said in a statement sent to Bloomberg that detailed the results of a study of its members. That exceeded admissions for people older than 80 by five percentage points.
The jump in admissions is a marked change from the first three upsurges in infections, when admissions of children were very low. While the proportion of young patients rose in the fourth wave, it was similar to the number of people over 80 who were admitted, Discovery said.
“Discovery data show very low rates of admission to hospital for severe Covid-19 during the country’s first, second and third waves,” Ryan Noach, Discovery Health’s chief executive officer, said in the statement. “This picture has changed in recent months.”
South Africa’s first three Covid-19 waves were driven by the original strain of the virus and the beta and delta variants respectively. The fourth was caused by the emergence of the omicron variant while the fifth, which is now tapering off in South Africa, is attributed to the spread of the BA.4 and BA.5 omicron sublineages.
South Africa has served as a harbinger of how the coronavirus omicron variant and its sublineages may play out in other countries. Omicron was discovered by southern African scientists in November and South Africa was the first country to experience an upsurge of infections driven by the variant. South African scientists discovered BA.4 and BA.5 in April and those are now the dominant cause of infection in the country.
Admission rates in the current wave are “particularly notable” among new-born babies, with more than 50% of children under the age of one who tested positive for Covid-19 admitted to hospital, Noach said.
That compares with 40% in the fourth wave.
Children under the age of 12 have not been authorised for Covid-19 vaccinations in South Africa.
“Despite these changes in omicron relative to the other waves, children in general cope well with Covid-19 infections, taking them in their stride,” Noach said.
South Africa has the highest number of recorded Covid-19 cases and deaths in Africa. While more than 100,000 people have officially died of the disease, excess death data, a measure of mortality against a historical average, shows that three times as many people may have perished from the virus.