A shortage of children’s over-the-counter pain medication may be only the most obvious sign of the latest wave of COVID-19 is spreading rapidly among the youngest — and least vaccinated — segment of the population, according to some experts.
“Omicron is impacting children more than (previous strains),” said Dr. Anna Banerji, a pediatrician and infectious disease specialist at the Temerty Faculty of Medicine and Dalla Lana School of Public Health.
Like most everyone, children are no longer required to mask or distance — both practices that reduce the risk of catching COVID. Opportunity for that contact abounds with the return of summer camps and festivals. As a group, children under 11 are also largely not yet fully vaccinated, making the risk of serious illness after higher infection.
All this, plus the fact the highly transmissible Omicron variant more easily infects children than previous strains should warrant increased caution from parents, Banerji said.
“We should be a bit more concerned. Children and youth should be getting vaccinated,” said Banerji. “We dismissed COVID for younger people in the beginning, part of the reason was fewer of them were getting infected then.”
Banerji said children are more likely to become infected now than in waves past — and infection comes with risk.
Though COVID is largely mild in children, it can cause them to develop a rare but serious condition called multi-system inflammatory syndrome in children, which is characterized by fever and pain, and can cause multiple organs to become inflamed. It’s also believed children can develop long COVID.
Children under five only became eligible for vaccination last month, but if vaccination rates for older children are any indicator, it could be a while before most of them get their shots. Only 40 per cent of Ontarians aged five to 11 have received two doses, despite being eligible since November.
The reason many observers have to rely on clues like bare pharmacy shelves to gauge COVID’s presence is a lack of data being recorded by the province.
Ontario’s COVID testing infrastructure was unable to keep up with demand after the highly transmissible Omicron wave hit last winter. The provinces then scaled back access to high-accuracy laboratory tests, with the result that about 60,000 weekly tests are being done now, down from more than 400,000 per week at peak in December.
Instead, experts look for COVID in our sewage and rely on people self-reporting rapid test results.
That’s why Banerji dismisses Public Health Ontario COVID case data. It currently indicates children five to 11 have the lowest rate of infection of any age group.
“They’re not really measuring it,” she said. “People are getting infected, but we don’t know to what degree.”
Jen Belcher, vice-president of strategic initiatives and member relations for the Ontario Pharmacists Association (OPA), said resurging viral infections, including COVID, likely led to increased demand for over-the-counter medications like Tylenol and Advil.
“Now that we have dropped public health precautious that helped limit spread, we’ve seen a return of the common cold, influenza,” Belcher said. “We haven’t been in contact with people in quite some time, so our natural immunity has waned.”
To the OPA, children’s Tylenol has been in short supply in Canada for months, partly because the pharmaceutical companies are dealing with supply chain woes, such as a lack of availability of certain drug components, as well as labor shortages from warehouse outbreaks and resignations .
In a statement to Simcoe.com last month, Johnson & Johnson, maker of children’s Tylenol, said it was working to meet the increased demand.
“We continue to experience increased consumer-driven demand with certain products and markets. We are taking all possible measures to ensure product availability.”
The company did not respond to a request for an update from the Star this week.
Belcher said the lack of children’s Tylenol is affecting parents across the country.
“Uncontrolled fever, especially in younger children, can be medically dangerous,” she said.
“And the shortage can lead to situations where parents who are unaware of the danger try may turn to adult products and use them inappropriately for a child.”
Belcher cautioned any parent considering this to first consult their health-care provider.
“It’s important to get quality information from someone who knows your child, rather than looking it up online and hoping or believing it applies to your situation.”
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