Covid-19 is still rare in kids, but far from harmless – study

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As US health officials start to learn how the new coronavirus affects children, a new study details the cases of 48 young patients who wound up in the intensive care units at 14 different hospitals after they were infected with Covid-19.

What common threads did the researchers find? An overwhelming majority – 83% – of these young patients suffered from an underlying health condition. Nearly 40% of those children needed a ventilator, and two died.

No child in the study had the new coronavirus-linked inflammatory syndrome that can cause life-threatening heart problems in children. Instead, the 48 patients showed the severe respiratory distress that has hit so many American adults so hard.

"The idea that Covid-19 is sparing of young people is just false," said study co-author Lawrence Kleinman. He is chief of the department of paediatrics' division of population health, quality and implementation science at Rutgers University, in New Jersey.

A very grim prognosis

"While children are more likely to get very sick if they have other chronic conditions, including obesity, it is important to note that children without chronic illness are also at risk. Parents need to continue to take the virus seriously," Kleinman said in a Rutgers news release.

The findings appear to confirm two things: Only a tiny fraction of children will be hit hard by Covid-19, but when it happens the prognosis is very grim.

In the study, the 48 Covid-19 patients ranged in age from newborn to age 21, with the average age being 13. All were treated in the United States and Canada in March and April.

More than 80% had chronic underlying problems, such as immune suppression, obesity, diabetes, seizures or chronic lung disease. Of those, 40% had tracheostomies or feeding tubes due to developmental delays or genetic disorders.

More than 20% suffered failure of two or more organ systems due to Covid-19, and nearly 40% required a breathing tube and ventilator, the findings showed.

Not universally benign among children

At the end of the study follow-up period, nearly 33% of the patients were still hospitalised due to Covid-19, with three still requiring ventilator support and one on life support.

The study was published online on 11 May in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.

"This study provides a baseline understanding of the early disease burden of Covid-19 in paediatric patients," said study co-author Dr Hariprem Rajasekhar, a paediatric intensivist in the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School's department of paediatrics.

"The findings confirm that this emerging disease was already widespread in March and that it is not universally benign among children," Rajasekhar added.

However, the researchers said they were "cautiously encouraged" by the 4.2% death rate for the young patients in the study, compared with published death rates of up to 62% among adults admitted to ICUs. The researchers also saw lower rates of respiratory failure among the younger patients.

Image credit: Getty Images

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