With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, children's health and vulnerability have become a major area of concern.
According to the Ministry of Health guidelines, the disease spread can be stopped or reduced by observing measures such as frequent handwashing with soap, physical distancing and always wearing a mask. While children can do the first two, it is unclear if children should or should not wear a mask.
The issue has further become a hot topic in the debate on schools reopening. Many question the viability of children wearing face masks as a precaution.
In June, Education Cabinet Secretary George Magoha said as schools reopen next year, all children will be required to wear a mask. He said each student will be given two reusable masks but urged parents to buy extra. At the time, the CS admitted that the statement was subject to advise from the global health agency.
The World Health Organisation offers guidance. It says people should always consult and abide by local authorities on the recommended practices in their area.
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According to the global health agency, an international and multidisciplinary expert group reviewed evidence on the Covid-19 disease and transmission in children and the evidence on the use of masks by children.
Based on this and other factors such as childrens’ psychosocial needs and developmental milestones, WHO and Unicef say children aged five years and under should not wear masks.
This is based on the safety of the child and their ability to use the mask appropriately and with minimal assistance.
But the rule is not to be applied blindly. The agency advises that there may be circumstances where children aged five and under may wear a mask. These include if they have underlying health conditions such as cancer and immunosuppression, or if they are physically close to someone who is ill. In that case, they will wear a non-medical or fabric mask.
Experts further add that children under the age of 11 should not wear masks as they run the risk of choking or suffocation.
Doctors have also previously warned that masks make inhaling and exhaling more difficult for children under two years because they have smaller airways.
However, for children aged between six and 11, the case is slightlly different. Whether they put on a mask is dependent on their ability to wear it properly with minimal assistance and the transmission trends in the area of residence.
For children aged 12 and above, WHO and Unicef advise that they follow the guidelines as in the case for adults and wear a mask, especially when the 1.5m physical distancing cannot be guaranteed.
Children should not wear a mask when playing sports or doing physical activities as it will compromise their breathing.