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The World Health Organization’s office for Europe said Tuesday that children in the five to 14 age group now account for the highest rates of reported COVID-19 infection in the region.

WHO Europe regional director Dr. Hans Kluge also argued that vaccine mandates should be “an absolute last resort,” and said that COVID-19 deaths remain “significantly below previous peaks.” But he said that coronavirus cases and deaths have more than doubled in the last two months in the 53-country region stretching to central Asia.

He stressed the continued threat from the widespread delta variant, and noted the new omicron variant has so far accounted for 432 confirmed cases in 21 countries in the region.

“The delta variant remains dominant across Europe and Central Asia, and we know that the COVID-19 vaccines remain effective in reducing severe disease and deaths from it,” he told reporters from WHO Europe headquarters in Copenhagen. “It is yet to be seen how and whether the latest COVID-19 variant of concern, omicron, will be more transmissible, or more or less severe.”

Kluge urged countries to “protect children and the schools” amid the rapid increase in cases among the young in the region, and said the incidence of COVID-19 was two to three times higher among young children than the average population in some places. Children have tended to face less-severe cases than more vulnerable populations like older people, health-care workers and people with weaker immune systems.

“As school holidays approach, we must also acknowledge that children contaminate their parents and grandparents at home, with a 10-times increased risk for these adults to develop severe disease, be hospitalized or die when non-vaccinated,” he said. “The health risks extend beyond the children themselves.”

Kluge also spoke out against vaccination mandates, saying they should be an “absolute last resort” and have efficacy only in some contexts.

WHO’s European region has been the global epicentre of the pandemic for weeks, accounting for 70 per cent of cases and 61 per cent of deaths worldwide, according to the UN health agency’s weekly epidemiological report issued last week.

The update from Europe came as public health experts and governments around the world grappled with how to handle increased gatherings and travel expected amid the holiday season.

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-From The Associated Press, last updated at 10:50 a.m. ET


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What’s happening around the world

A medical worker wears a shirt with the slogan against vaccine requirements for health-care workers during a protest against the Belgian government’s measures aimed at reducing COVID-19. (Johanna Geron/Reuters)

As of early Tuesday morning, more than 266.6 million cases of COVID-19 had been reported worldwide, according to a case-tracking site maintained by Johns Hopkins University. The reported global death toll stood at more than 5.2 million.

In Europe, thousands of Belgian health-care workers rallied Tuesday in Brussels to oppose mandatory COVID-19 vaccines and to demand better working conditions as a surge in new cases weighs heavily on hospitals.

Around 4,000 people — some with placards reading, “Save your nurse, one day she will be the one saving you,” or, “My body, my choice” — took part in the march, according to police in Belgium’s capital.

The noisy rally ended outside the Belgian health ministry, where police at one point used pepper spray to keep some demonstrators away. There were no reports of injuries.

Starting Jan. 1, health-care workers in Belgium will have a three-month window in which to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Those who remain unvaccinated will be notified that their contracts will be suspended unless they provide a certificate proving recovery from COVID-19 or a recent negative test.

Health-care workers participate in a demonstration against a requirement that they receive COVID-19 vaccination in Brussels on Tuesday. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

From April, those without a proper justification for refusing to comply could be dismissed. According to some estimates, around 60,000 health workers across the country of 11.5 million people are not vaccinated against COVID-19.

Meanwhile, unvaccinated individuals will continue to stay in lockdown even after Austria lifts its wider coronavirus measures for the general public on Sunday, Chancellor Karl Nehammer confirmed on Tuesday, a day after he took office.

“The lockdown for the unvaccinated is staying,” Nehammer told a news conference, while confirming that the wider curbs would be lifted on Sunday as planned.

However, details still need to be ironed out at a meeting on Wednesday between the government and the influential governors of Austria’s nine provinces.

Austria’s two-week-old lockdown aimed to counter a surge in daily COVID-19 infections to record levels, with restaurants, bars, theatres, museums and non-essential shops shut to all but take-away business. Hotels are closed to tourists.

In the Americas, Mexico City officials will begin offering a third COVID-19 vaccine dose to residents over the age of 60 on Tuesday, officials said, part of a government plan to roll out booster shots.

In Africa, Uganda has its first seven cases of the omicron variant of the coronavirus, a health official confirmed Tuesday. The director of clinical services, Charles Olaro, said the variant was detected in travellers from South Africa and Nigeria who arrived in Uganda on Nov. 29.

“We have already notified them about their status and they are already in isolation,” he said.

Olaro said the first tests done on the travellers after arrival at Entebbe International Airport showed they were positive for the coronavirus and further testing confirmed the new variant.

In the Asia-Pacific region, Thailand on Tuesday reported 3,525 new COVID-19 cases and 31 additional deaths. The update came as health officials reported that the people who came into close contact with the country’s first confirmed omicron case — a U.S. traveller — had now tested negative for COVID-19, according to local media.

In the Middle East, Iran on Tuesday reported 3,514 new cases of COVID-19 with 79 additional deaths.

-From Reuters, The Associated Press and CBC News, last updated at 9:35 a.m. ET

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