While early reporting about the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 emphasized that the primary individuals at risk were older people and people with preexisting medical conditions, new information from researchers provides a better picture of what the community spread of the virus can mean for children and babies.
According to a new study published in Pediatrics, while most children (which still make up a small number of the confirmed cases) have seen moderate symptoms, it’s very young children (preschool age) and babies who run a risk of more serious infections —because they have less developed immune systems than some of their older peers. This news comes after reports that both a 10-month-old and a 14-year-old have died from the disease in China.
Looking at more than 2,000 cases of sick children (18 and under) from across China (a third of them confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the remainder considered suspected cases), researchers found that more than a third of the cases (39 percent) had patients reporting “moderate” sickness, four percent were asymptomatic and 125 children (5.9 percent of them) developed critical illness — which in children can “quickly progress to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) or respiratory failure, and may also have shock, encephalopathy, myocardial injury or heart failure, coagulation dysfunction, and acute kidney injury. Organ dysfunction can be life threatening.”
While these cases are still in the minority, it does make clear that kids getting sick from COVID-19 is not a non-issue — and that kids are in a position to be more than just asymptomatic carriers, as the severity of illness can vary.
“Children at all ages were sensitive to COVID-19, and there was no significant gender difference. Clinical manifestations of children’s COVID-19 cases were less severe than those of adults’ patients. However, young children, particularly infants, were vulnerable to 2019-nCoV infection,” according to the study. “The distribution of children’s COVID-19 cases varied with time and space, and most of the cases concentrated in Wuhan and surrounding areas. Furthermore, the results of this study provide strong evidence for human-to-human transmission as children were unlikely to visit the Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market where the early adult patients were reported to obtain 2019-nCoV.”
The Centers for Disease Control notes on their resource page for COVID-19 and children that “based on available evidence, children do not appear to be at higher risk for COVID-19 than adults. While some children and infants have been sick with COVID-19, adults make up most of the known cases to date.”
Still, more information about how the virus moves and affects different demographics (which will only increase as tests become more readily available for those who need them) can be helpful for public health officials and families to make the most proactive choices for social distancing guidance, school cancellations and isolation.