Emily Oster has a new article out in The Atlantic where she says it’s safe to let children resume a more normal social life this summer. She acknowledges that there is not yet a covid vaccine for kids but she writes, “Although scientists don’t quite understand why, kids seem to be naturally protected. As a result, you can think of your son or daughter as an already vaccinated grandparent.”
She goes on to make some risk-benefit analyses about severity of disease in children but I stopped listening to her because I was too angry at her for trying to apply economic principles to the path of a novel virus.
Now, I’m going to preface this by saying I’m not a virologist. But neither is Emily Oster, so you can choose which not-expert you want to listen to after you read what I have to say.
Let’s start with a journey back to the time I caught human papiloma virus (HPV). Remember that? Hahahahahahah! No, you don’t and neither do I because HPV is a sneaky little fucker of a virus that sets up housekeeping in human bodies without notice. You probably have HPV right now and you don’t even know it.
Chances are excellent that eventually your immune system will evict HPV and you’ll never know it was there. Or, maybe your HPV will be like mine and cause pre-cancerous abnormalities on your cervix.
If that happens, you’ll need a procedure called a LEEP where a doctor removes a layer of your cervix. It may require general anesthesia, you may bleed vaginally afterward, and you’re considered high-risk for cervical cancer until you get a clean HPV test. If you ever get a clean HPV test. A LEEP doesn’t cure HPV. It just cleans your own cells that have started to mutate into something that wants to kill you.
Oh! It might also affect your ability to carry a pregnancy because having one less layer of cervix means you might not be able to keep a baby in your uterus for 40 weeks. I was on cervical rest for most of my second pregnancy thanks to my close encounter with HPV.
Now, you’re probably thinking that I have lost the plot because we were discussing covid-19 and covid-19 doesn’t cause cervical cancer.
Or does it?
We don’t know what covid-19 does over the long term because covid has been a pathogen that affects humans for approximately 16 months. There is no data on the long-term effects because there is no long term. But there is plenty of data to show that other viruses can behave in destructive ways for years after initial exposure.
Think about chicken pox. That’s a virus and, like covid-19, it’s not super harmful to kids when they first get it. But then it hangs out in the body for years and sometimes reappears as shingles. Shingles is painful, debilitating, and highly contagious. That’s one of the reasons why we started vaccinating kids for chicken pox; to prevent a more serious illness in later life.
Zika is a virus that doesn’t cause dramatic symptoms in the person who has it. However, if a pregnant person gets Zika, it can cause major fetal anomalies, including problems with brain development that lead to microcephaly. The baby is likely to have lifelong disabilities.
Polio is a virus that can cause paralysis and death in children. People who have survived polio are at risk of post-polio syndrome, a neurological disorder that emerges 30 or more years after the person has recovered from polio. It causes chronic fatigue and progressively worsening muscle weakness.
Covid-19 is a virus just like all the ones I just mentioned. We know that some people who contract covid-19 continue to have symptoms for months after exposure. No one is sure why that’s happening or what to do about it. Some covid-19 patients end up with irreparable organ damage. Others have circulatory problems that don’t resolve. Covid-19 is unpredictable. Disease longevity and severity vary widely and no one can predict who will get sicker or if they will get better. Nor do we know if covid-19 will stay in the body and re-emerge later in life.
Which brings us back to Emily Oster’s hypothesis that it’s fine to let kids risk covid-19 exposure because they probably won’t get too sick in the short term. She’s right about that but what about the long term? Will there be post-covid syndromes that wreak havoc on people years later?
And do you want to put your kids at risk of that happening to them?
I can’t tell you what to do but I’m not going to back down on covid-19 mitigation for my family. I expect there will be vaccine for kids by the end of this year. I can wait until then to resume normal life. That seems better than waiting decades to see what covid-19 might do to people I love.