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Regular school screenings would cause kids ‘needless anguish’

Pediatric experts say self-tests too unreliable, unnecessary for kids without symptoms

This photo taken Feb. 7 shows children on their way to school in the morning in a Seoul neighborhood. (Yonhap)
This photo taken Feb. 7 shows children on their way to school in the morning in a Seoul neighborhood. (Yonhap)

As spring semester approaches amid the omicron surge, the South Korean government is mulling rapid antigen screening of students and staff as part of its back-to-school plans.

The Ministry of Education said Monday rapid antigen testing may become a staple at kindergartens and the 1st through the 12th grade when the new semester begins in March.

Earlier in the day, the ministry had announced that they would carry out the testing, but ministry officials later would not confirm to The Korea Herald that the decision was final, saying confirmation would come in a briefing Wednesday.

The ministry said that for lower-grade classrooms in particular, students as well as members of the faculty may be required to take a rapid antigen self-test at least twice a week for the first five weeks through the semester. The test result must be negative prior to coming back to class.

The March supply of some 6.92 million self-test kits are set to be distributed to schools and kindergartens later this month, the ministry said. 

Experts worry that such regular screening testing would cause children “needless anguish.”

Dr. Lim Hyun-taek, the president of the Korean Pediatric Association, said that the rapid antigen tests, especially when done by nonprofessionals, were “too inaccurate to be useful.”

He said in his experience he has seen “countless cases where parents say their kid has tested negative in self-tests but continues to show symptoms.” “When I do the test again using sample collected from the nasopharynx, which is way further back in the nasal cavity, then sure enough it would come out positive.”

He pointed out that the accuracy of rapid tests, already unreliable, were further compromised by tests not being done with the optimal sample type or samples not being collected correctly.

“The cotton swabs for self-test kits are much shorter, not meant to reach any farther than the nostril area,” he said. “With the self-tests, you’re taking anterior nasal swabs, which are significantly less accurate, as opposed to nasopharyngeal swabs.”

Lim suggested having only students with symptoms, rather than all students, take tests at designated clinics.

Pediatric infectious disease professor Dr. Eun Byung-wook of Nowon Eulji University Hospital in northern Seoul, said the tests “can be agonizing and traumatizing for children.” “Subjecting children to these tests, which are not sensitive enough, regardless of presence of symptoms, is questionable,” he said.

“A better alternative would be if we had a more accurate, less painful testing method like ones using saliva samples.”

As for vaccinating younger children with vulnerabilities, any advice would have to wait until the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety clears the shot for the age group, he said. He added that experts within the Korean Society of Pediatric Infectious Diseases generally agree that vaccination is not recommended for healthy 5- to 11-year-olds.

As children under 12 years of age cannot be vaccinated in Korea, most students at elementary and pre-schools remain unvaccinated. The full vaccination rates in 12- to 15-year-olds stood at 77 percent as of the latest data.

By Kim Arin (