Doctor’s Note: What we know about coronavirus and children

They have been called ‘super spreaders’ but how does coronavirus affect children?

Doctor''s note - children
There is much we do not know about COVID-19, but the research we have suggests most children are relatively unharmed [EPA-EFE/Tibor Illyes]

The moment you become a parent, your children consume your every thought and worry – they are, of course, the most precious gift in your life.

Your natural instinct is to want to protect them in any way possible and if you could wrap them up in cotton wool to keep them safe, you would. 

Children are always prone to catching infections and minor illnesses. This is because their immune systems are fairly immature at birth and only develop fully over time.

Their resilience against infection develops and matures through engaging in set vaccination programmes – depending on which country you live in – but also through being exposed to a spectrum of common viruses and bacteria. 

Whether it is the common cold, tonsillitis, ear infections, chest infections, chicken pox, gastroenteritis or hand, foot and mouth disease, kids catch and share whatever they pick up. 

Most often, these illnesses cause fairly mild – albeit at times stressful – symptoms. The good news is that most make a full recovery and are left with the bonus of enhanced immunity. 

But even these conditions, which we know a lot about, are enough to cause panic and anxiety when our children come down with them because we hate seeing our kids suffer.

Even though I’m a doctor, who knows the facts and science well, as a mother, I still feel very stressed and anxious when my own child is poorly.

It is no wonder, then, that amid a global pandemic, where we are facing a fight against a virus that we know little about, parents may be feeling overwhelming fear and anxiety.

I am being inundated with questions and worries from patients about how COVID-19 will affect their children. 

It is difficult to reassure them because we know so little about this virus and the situation is constantly evolving. 

However, so far the research has consistently shown that children seem to be largely unharmed by COVID-19. 

A recent study published by the American Academy of Pediatrics looked at more than 2,000 children with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 which had been reported to the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention between January 16 and February 8.

Of the 2,143 cases, 90 percent were either reported to have no symptoms or only mild (fever, fatigue, muscle aches, cough, sore throat, runny nose, and sneezing) to moderate (with pneumonia, frequent fevers, variable cough and shortness of breath) symptoms. These children were reported to make a full recovery with no complications.

Children of all ages were shown to be susceptible to contracting the coronavirus, which is to be expected as with any infectious disease. 

We learned that four percent of children showed no symptoms at all however there was a small number – 125 children, or six percent – who developed more serious symptoms. In these cases, the infection progressed to compromise other organs of the body including the gastrointestinal system, the kidneys, the heart and lungs. A small number (0.4 percent) of these children required critical care support due to potential multi-organ and respiratory failure. 

Sadly, there was one death among the sample – a 14-year-old who had tested positive for the virus. Unfortunately, there is no information about any potential underlying health conditions in this case. 

This is the largest study to date, so it gives us a good impression of the spread of the coronavirus in children.

However, with the rapid spread of this illness on such a global scale, we need more data as soon as possible to learn more.

We are continually updating our knowledge about this virus and how it will affect our children and about whether exposure to coronavirus will cause them any long-term complications. 

So much is still unknown. For now, however, the data shows that serious complications in those aged under 19 are rare.

Children can pass the virus on 

Even if they show no symptoms, children are highly effective “super spreaders” of this virus mainly because of how they mobilise around society. They are curious by nature, are highly sociable, touch everything and love physical contact.

This places the more vulnerable members of their families and communities at risk. 

People over the age of 70 have a significantly higher chance of developing serious complications because this group generally tends to be more frail or have other long-term health problems which make them more vulnerable. 

This is the same for those who have compromised immune systems secondary to conditions such as cancer or those with other underlying medical problems such as lung disease, heart disease and diabetes. 

A large proportion of this age group will be grandparents or relatives who are in contact with young children.

In the UK, pregnant women have now been placed in the high-risk category and, of course, many of these women, too, will have other children who could be bringing home the virus.

The issue is that many of those in the high-risk, vulnerable categories are also relatives or carers for the young so we must appreciate the need to implement measures such as social distancing, as challenging and as daunting as that may seem.

This combination could be deadly. So what can you do to protect your kids as well as your elders?

Ensure that you are educating your children, where possible, about the importance of self-protection. 

Teach them how to meticulously wash their hands and avoid touching their faces. As a mum, I fully appreciate this is not an easy ask but keep the reminders going. Repetition is key.

Everybody should practise social distancing and avoid close contact with others, even those you think are well, because at this stage we simply do not know who has it and who does not.

It is especially important to keep children away from those who are unwell, have underlying medical problems, are on medications that are suppressing their immune systems and those who are over the age of 70.

Children are transmitters through no fault of their own. It is up to us, their carers and parents, to help limit the spread of the coronavirus as much as possible. 

I appreciate how uncertain these times feel but we are being guided by world experts on a daily basis. We must remain hopeful and relay this to our youngsters so we can continue to enjoy family life, albeit in a slightly different way, for now.

Source: Al Jazeera