As the new coronavirus has continued to spread, parents around the globe have let out a collective sigh of relief that — based on what is known about the virus so far — it appears to be less serious in children.
And new findings released early in the journal Pediatrics this week strengthen that belief, suggesting children do, in fact, experience milder symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
It relied on data from more than 2,000 children in China, about one-third of whom had lab-confirmed cases of COVID-19 and two-thirds of whom had suspected cases.
“This study does show that this virus appears to be less severe in children than adults, but it also shows that some children do require hospitalization,” Dr. Sean O’Leary, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with the University of Colorado Denver, told HuffPost.
Roughly 4% of the children had no symptoms at all and 51% had mild illness — meaning symptoms like fever, sore throat, coughing, sneezing or digestive issues.
Another 39% had what researchers considered moderate illness, including pneumonia, more frequent fever and cough, or wheezing.
And 6% of the children had severe or critical illness, meaning they experienced very serious complications, including respiratory failure. One teenage boy died.
The researchers found that younger children, particularly babies, are at greater risk for developing more serious symptoms and complications.
About 11% of infants had severe or critical illness, followed by 7% of kids age 1 to 5. For older children and teens, the rates of serious illness were lower.
O’Leary said it’s not fully clear why those differences exist, though the pattern is in line with what happens with many other respiratory viruses. It could be related to differences in the developing immune system, various exposure patterns or behaviors.
Overall, O’Leary said the findings generally track with what is known about most respiratory viruses, including the common cold.
“Most children do fine when they catch one … but some require a higher level of care,” he said.
Yet some media coverage may be giving parents the sense that otherwise-healthy children are likely to be nothing more than asymptomatic carriers of the virus, suggesting they might be “immune” to COVID-19.
In a press call this week, the World Health Organization’s director-general, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, reminded journalists that is not the case.
“Although the evidence we have suggests that those over 60 are at highest risk, young people, including children, have died,” he said.
The new study does have some notable limitations. Not all cases were confirmed through lab testing, and severe outcomes were more common in kids who were not specifically tested for COVID-19, which could be because their symptoms were caused by other pathogens.
The study may also underestimate the number of children who are asymptomatic carriers, as it focused primarily on those who presented with symptoms, O’Leary said.
In a commentary published alongside the new study, two associate editors for Pediatrics point out that researchers are still trying to understand the extent to which children “shed” the virus through nasal secretions and through their feces, which could make day cares and preschools particular sources of community spread.
But for the millions of parents whose children are home with them after sweeping school closures, the findings will likely be a source of some comfort.
And, as researchers continue to try to better understand the new coronavirus, health experts continue to emphasize steps parents can take to keep their children healthy: practice social distancing, teach them to avoid touching their face as much as possible, and wash those little hands.
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