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WHO issues guidelines for use of masks by children

24 Aug 2020

As schools gear up to open their gates for students, concerns regarding the spread of the COVID-19 infection as well as the use of protective equipment such as face masks within the school environment continue to spark debate in the society.

Allaying some concerns, for the first time, the World Health Organization (WHO) has issued guidelines on the use of masks for children in the community. 

It said that children over the age of 12 should wear masks, in line with recommended practice for adults in their country or area, while children aged five and under should not normally wear masks.

The organisation admits that little is known about how children transmit the virus but cites evidence that teenagers can infect others in the same way as adults. ‘Young children may have lower susceptibility to infection compared to adults, however, available data suggests that this may vary by age among children. Data from seroepidemiology and transmission studies suggest that older children (eg teenagers) may play a more active role in transmission than younger children.’

The benefits of wearing masks by children for the COVID-19 control should be weighed against potential harm associated with wearing masks, including discomfort, as well as social and communication concerns. Factors to consider also include age groups, sociocultural and contextual considerations and availability of adult supervision and other resources to prevent transmission, the WHO said.

In the advisory, WHO and Unicef stated that the decision-makers should apply the following criteria for the use of masks in children when developing national policies in countries or areas where there is known or suspected community transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and in settings where physical distancing cannot be achieved:

Children aged up to five years should not wear masks for source control.

For children aged between six and 11, the WHO advises taking into account how widespread the transmission of the virus is and whether the child is interacting with high-risk individuals such as the elderly. It also stresses the need for adult supervision to help children use, put on and take off masks safely

Children aged 12 and older should wear a mask under the same conditions as adults, in particular when they cannot guarantee a distance of at least one metre from others and there is widespread transmission in the area.

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