COVID-19: UAE expert tips to protect children from coronavirus, preserve immunity

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Dubai: The novel coronavirus disease, COVID-19, seems to be giving children a wide berth in terms of complications. COVID-19 cases worldwide have crossed the 1.5 million mark, claiming over 89,000 lives – as of the time of writing this story.

While children are not immune to getting infected by the virus, most reported cases are asymptomatic and mild. This is widely being attributed to their immunity, which has been always stronger and more resilient than adults. 

However, there have been a handful of deaths which, though very rare, could worry parents. We asked a UAE-based doctor for her expert opinion and tips on keeping children safe – physically and mentally.

Dr Rania Ayat Hawayek, Specialist Paediatrician, Medical Director and Founder, Circle Care Clinic and Dyson ambassador answered our most pertinent questions.

What makes children’s immunities stronger than adults?

Why are children at a lower risk of getting symptoms?

Children have a faster cell regeneration rate, and if there is any damage to a cell in their bodies it can repair much better and faster than in adults. Their bodies have been subject to far less free radical damage, their lungs are healthier, and they have not been eating highly processed foods like adults.

Children’s lungs have far less receptors that the cytokine proteins caused by the virus…

Dr Rania Ayat Hawayek, Specialist Paediatrician

Also, they have not been exposed to decades of traffic fumes, pollution and second-hand smoke, so in general, their lungs and bodies are cleaner and healthier.

More specific to COVID-19 is the fact that children’s lungs have far less receptors that the cytokine proteins caused by the virus can latch onto and result in potentially serious respiratory complications. This means they are not affected by the respiratory issues that adults are susceptible to – making them at lower risk for having severe symptoms of the virus.

I have to leave home for work

How can I keep my kids safe when stepping outside for work in a vital sector?

For parents who are still going out because they are in one of the vital sectors there are several precautions, they can take to keep themselves and their households safe upon their return:

• Practice proper social distancing. Do not immediately hug your children when returning home until you have taken the necessary precautions, including washing your hands thoroughly

Illustrative image: Don’t hug children when you get home, explain the measures to them
Image Credit: Supplied

Assume the clothes you wear are contaminated after you return home, so change right away and where you can, wash them immediately

Take off shoes and leave them outside overnight, then clean them before you bring them in

• Wear disposable masks and latex gloves when going outside and throw them away once at home. Do not use the same mask and gloves again for they may contain remnants of the virus in case you have come across a person with symptoms

• For those in direct contact with COVID-19 patients, such as healthcare professionals, it is better to self-isolate away from the household. If that is not possible ensure you are always wearing full protective wear at your place of work

• Set rules within the household whilst you’re at work – for e.g. social distancing before handling and accepting deliveries, ensuring children wash their hands frequently and if they are stepping out for an emergency make sure they are equipped with masks and gloves too

Does diet help in protecting our children?

Which food items should they be consuming right now to build resistance against symptoms?

A good diet is key to protecting our children and even us as adults. That is why it is very important to maintain an organised structure every day to continue to boost immunity as a preventative measure. Eating fruits and vegetables is key, and given the restrictions right now, it requires us to forward plan when ordering our groceries to ensure we always have plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables at hand.

Additionally, below are some of the factors you must add to the organised routine:

• Children need to stay well hydrated, especially now when they are not playing outside and not feeling very thirsty indoors. Keep their vitamin C intake high. It is better if this is through fresh fruits but if you have a child who is a fussy eater then supplements are a good alternative.

Vitamin D is also important as we are all spending much more time indoors and away from direct sunlight. Deficiencies of Vitamin D have been linked to lower levels of immunity, so do provide your child with a dose of 800IU a day, which is double the normal daily dosage of Vitamin D.

Zinc is also important in boosting immunity. One of the best sources is nuts. If they are not allergic to Brazil nuts, grinding three brazil nuts a day into your child’s food is a great way of getting their daily requirement of Zinc into their diet.

Sugar increases the risk of catching infections, so make sure your family is reducing their intake of sugar.

Improving indoor measures

What measures should we take indoors, in addition to sanitising surroundings?

Improving your indoor surroundings is key for your children. Now that there are more members of the family at home at the same time, it is vital to be extra cautious on how you clean and rid your home of germs and bacteria.

Deep cleaning allows you to remove harmful dust from the environment. Properly tackle dust by washing any soft furnishing items – pillows, curtains, cushions and throws. Other items, such as mattresses and couches, should be cleaned using a powerful, fully sealed vacuum cleaner with appropriate attachments.

Illustrative image: Treating mattresses
Image Credit: Zarina Fernandes/XPRESS

Furthermore, look at ways to improve indoor air quality. The air in our homes can contain a number of substances including dust, germs and bacteria, pet dander, allergens, gases including volatile organic compounds (VOCs), NO2 and benzene. Now is the time to invest in an air purifier that has dual, HEPA filters that can capture pollutants, gases and viruses in the air.

Making your home free of pollutants will help in preserving good immunity in children.

Mental health and talking to children?

What advice would you give with regards to safeguarding children’s mental health, given the the strict safety measures taken by the UAE?

I would advise parents to maintain a routine with their children. Children respond well to having an ongoing schedule, so they go to bed at the same time and have a structure to their day. Being too flexible in their day-to-day activities tends to make children a little insecure and that is where they will try to fight routine and treat the current situation as just an extended vacation.

Parents should avoid listening and watching the news about COVID-19 and discussing the negative aspects of it in front of their children. Children absorb a great deal and much more than we realize. It is better to have a conversation with them about the current situation in simple terms and ask them what they think is happening.

Image used for illustrative purposes: For children their mental health depends on how secure they feel and that depends on how secure their parents seem to them.
Image Credit: Shutterstock

For example, my three-year-old son knows he can’t visit his grandmother because of the virus, but once that is cleared, he can see her. In this way he knows it’s due to the virus and not because she doesn’t want to see him. There is plenty of great digital content about COVID-19 that has been made for children, which de-mystifies the virus and helps them to better understand what is going on.

Cabin fever: Do children like being indoors?

Children are very adaptable and in fact, enjoy being indoors. For many of them it is the first chance to be with their parents all day, every day.

I find that it is the parents that tend to get more of the cabin fever than their children. I would encourage parents to make their homes into big play areas and be creative in a way that really engages with their child’s imagination.

For example, excite them with an indoor treasure hunt by drawing out a map of your home, and then hide the ‘treasure’ in different places each time. Adjust the difficulty depending on their age.

For children their mental health depends on how secure they feel and that depends on how secure their parents seem to them. As long as you can put a smile on your face, maintain a structured day, and behave normally, they will be happy.

Also, do not feel pressured to break house rules due to the situation. Be firm with them: when necessary, a no is a no; children get their strength and security from normal and healthy parenting.

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