Coronavirus: Why are more young people getting infected?

As countries reopen and expand testing, there is an increase in the proportion of cases among the younger population.

Coronavirus: Why are more young people getting infected?
[Illustration by Jawahir al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Editor’s Note: This series is produced in partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO).

An increasing number of young people are now getting infected with the novel coronavirus, with clusters of cases emerging in different locations as countries have eased restrictions and lifted lockdowns.

Between February and July, there was an increase in the proportion of individuals aged between five and 24 being infected, according to an analysis of six million cases – out of the more than 23 million total infections worldwide – reported to the WHO by member states.

Among the available data of these six million cases, one-third of which were from the United States, the proportion of infected people aged five to 14 years grew from 0.8 percent to 4.6 percent, those aged 15 to 24 years grew from 4.5 to 15 percent.

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, said the shift of the pandemic towards the younger demographic was a “worrying” sign.

“Younger people tend to have mild disease or are asymptomatic, which is good for them, but many of them live with older or vulnerable individuals … and if we have more younger people infected, they have the possibility to infect somebody else, who is part of a vulnerable group and we know infected vulnerable people are more likely to have severe disease or die,” she told Al Jazeera.

A number of possible explanations are contributing to this trend, Van Kerkhove noted, including the reopening of societies after months of so-called “lockdown”, with people returning to their normal routines.

“With the opening of societies, there’s a change in our behaviour. More people going out, going back to work, attending social events … so there has been a recent shift in our behaviour, which is exposing more younger people to the virus,” she said.

Another reason is the change in the surveillance strategy. Early surveillance for new diseases, including COVID-19, initially focuses on more severe cases, but now countries have increased testing and are looking beyond severe cases.

‘Not invincible’

Although older people are at a greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19 – the disease caused by the new coronavirus – the WHO has reiterated that young people are “not invincible”.

Last month, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the recent spike in cases in some countries was partly due to younger people “letting their guard down during the northern hemisphere summer”.

In South Korea, dozens of new cases in May were linked to a popular nightlife district of the capital, Seoul, packed with bars, nightclubs and restaurants.

Similar outbreaks have been reported in nightspots and the entertainment industry in Japan.

Some colleges in the US have also reported cases among students since their return to campus.

Meanwhile, widely circulated photos and videos of a massive pool party earlier this month attended by thousands of people in the Chinese city of Wuhan, where the virus first emerged last December, has sparked controversy. WHO has pointed out that similar images have been shared in a number of other countries. 

What should young people do?

Van Kerkhove said young people were “absolutely critical” in helping to bring the pandemic under control through their actions, voice and leadership.

It is important to continue to take all the “precautionary measures recommended – maintain physical distancing, frequently wash hands, wear a mask when unable to maintain a distance – and assess the risks before going out,” she said. 

Young people should take part in contact tracing and avoid the three C’s: crowded settings, closed spaces and close contact.

Meanwhile, technology has allowed people to stay connected and socialise with their friends and loved ones during lockdowns.

The pandemic has also inspired several youth initiatives and innovations to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

WHO has been working with youth groups to get positive messages out about how each of us can be our own risk managers and minimise our risk of infection.

In March, medical students from more than 100 different countries launched a global online movement, #MoreViralThanTheVirus (MVTTV), to combat COVID-19 misinformation in more than 50 languages and to empower young people. 

Since its inception, the initiative has reached more than 1.5 million people and counting.

“I believe that as a medical student, we have a social responsibility to educate our peers (young people) of the key messages of the WHO, address the worrying attitudes of young people and correct any misinformation and disinformation among our different age groups,” MVTTV founder Ian Soh told Al Jazeera.

“No doubt, these are indeed difficult times for everyone but it is essentially also an opportunity for all of us to unite our efforts.”

Follow Saba Aziz on Twitter: @saba_aziz

Source: Al Jazeera