For Leeanna Palumbo, maternity leave during a global pandemic has been secluded and mostly homebound.
“I kept my bubble just to my parents and my inlaws,” the Burlington, Ont., first-time mother told Global News, explaining those were the only people who could see her now eight-month-old Veda. “We wouldn’t let anyone see her or touch her unless it was outside.”
Like for so many, living within Ontario’s strict lockdown guidelines has been challenging for the new mom.
“I would say that the hardest part, though, with the experience that I’ve had, is not being able to share with others,” Palumbo said.
But as the world reopens, doctors say parents, particularly of babies born during the pandemic, are going to face a new challenge — immunity debt.
What is immunity debt?
Immunity debt refers to the lack of immune stimulation due to the reduced exposure to viruses, germs and bacteria as a result of COVID-19 safety and lockdown measures.
“Because of the whole COVID lockdown, kids are being immune-deprived and their microbes are being screwed up. So their immune systems are a bit screwed up,” explained Brett Finlay, a professor of microbiology at the University of British Columbia.
Across the world in New Zealand, which saw success with its stringent pandemic lockdowns, the country is already feeling the effects of this phenomenon in its hospitals with a surge of respiratory syncytial virus, known as RSV. While quite common, the virus can make young children extremely ill and can even be fatal.
According to Wellington-based epidemiologist Michael Baker, there have been over 1,000 cases of RSV reported over the last five weeks across New Zealand. The usual average of a full winter season is over 1,700 cases.
“This year we are seeing a rebound of some of those infections that we very effectively suppressed last year and the most marked example is RSV,” said Baker. “It does create some negative effects. And one of them is … (this rise in infections) will put more of a strain on our pediatric wards than normal.”
This peak, he explained, doesn’t necessarily mean the country will have more RSV cases overall, just that the cases are breaking out in clusters all at once.
Could we see a similar trend in Canada?
Baker cautions that parents in Canada should not be surprised to see a similar trend.
“The countries that have been had have applied quite successful measures to stop COVID-19 transmission in the community will be seeing these effects,” he said.
“I think we’re going to see a big spike in (RSV) in kids next year or so,” he said. “I think hospitals are bracing for a big influx of RSV patients.”
Baker said babies born prematurely are most at risk.
“RSV is a serious illness in young children, particularly those who have other underlying illness or were born premature and their lungs are not as well developed … but it’s nothing like the severity of COVID-19 or even influenza, which is a huge both of which are huge killers,” he said.
Baker also notes while countries will see a rebound in those infections for maybe a year or two, he doesn’t believe that not having been exposed to them will have “in any way impeded the development of healthy immune system.”
But according to a recent paper written by a collective of French doctors, the longer these periods of low exposure to viruses or bacteria are, the greater the likelihood of future epidemics. They said this is due to a growing proportion of “susceptible” people and a declined herd immunity in the population.
Finlay is also concerned the seasonal flu could make a resurgence as people dial back on their COVID-19 safety measures.
“It’s just part of the game,” he said. “If you didn’t get it (before), then you’re going to get it now.”
What can parents do?
The best course of action, Finlay said, is for parents to continue with proper hygiene such as washing hands, coughing into your elbow and even continuing to wear a mask.
“(With) SARS, everyone was coughing into their sleeves. We saw a real decrease in all the other respiratory diseases,” he said.
Continuing to stay up to date on your child’s vaccinations is also key to keeping serious illness, such as measles, at bay, all of the experts who spoke to Global News said.
Come fall, Palumbo said Veda will be off to daycare.
“I’m a little scared about what she could contract or pick up at the same time, I know what’s important for her to get sick,” she said, confident in her caretaker’s plan to minimize transmission among the children.
“My daycare operator, she has a zero sick policy. So if a child is ill, they’re not able to go to daycare at all.”
She said she’s prepared for any colds that may come Veda’s way — but is still mostly concerned about COVID-19.