'No Complacency' on COVID-19 After Death of 13-Year-Old-Boy

Peter Russell

April 01, 2020

The death of a 13-year-old boy in the UK from COVID-19 demonstrated the need for a better understanding of the novel coronavirus and underlined the importance of taking precautions to reduce the spread of infection, experts said.

Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab died in King's College Hospital in London on Monday. 

He was thought to be the youngest person to have died from COVID-19 in the UK. 

"Ismael was only 13-years-old without any pre-existing health conditions," according to a statement issued on behalf of the teenager's family.

Dr Vanessa Sancho-Shimizu, a research fellow in the Department of Paediatric Infectious Diseases and Virology at Imperial College London, said that the "devastating news" showed there was "no room for complacency in this pandemic".

A few hours earlier, Belgium's health service said that a 12-year-old girl had died from the virus.

Last week, a 16-year-old girl, Julie, died at a children's hospital in Paris after testing positive for COVID-19.

Prof Jérôme Salomon, France's Director General of Health, who announced the death, said the teenager had contracted a severe form of the virus, which was "extremely rare" among young people.

Julie's older sister, Manon, was quoted as saying: "From the start, we were told that the virus does not affect young people. We believed it, like everyone else."

Young People 'Cannot Ignore This Virus'

From the start of the pandemic, evidence suggested that older, more vulnerable people were most likely to die from COVID-19.

In a briefing to the Science Media Centre (SMC) on 19th March, Prof Chris Whitty, the Government's chief medical adviser, said: "It is clear that children get this disease much less strongly than adults. I think the data on that is pretty strong now, and it certainly is the case that the majority of those that end up dying, sadly, are people who tend to be either in the later part of their lives, usually quite elderly, or those with pre-existing health conditions."

However, he added: "I think it's important we don't give the impression that every single young and healthy person is just going to breeze through this.

"We also need to be aware that this is not a trivial infection for everybody, even if they are a young adult", and that "what we absolutely shouldn't encourage is the idea that young people somehow can ignore it because they're going to be fine."
 

Experts Call for More Research

Commenting on the death of the London teenager, Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, told the SMC: "The lesson from countries such as China is that while the old are much more likely to die from coronavirus infection, the young are certainly not immune from it.

"Children can catch the virus, and while they are more likely to have mild symptoms, they can still pass it on to others who are more vulnerable.

"In rare cases, they can also get seriously ill, or die."

Dr Nathalie MacDermott, National Institute for Health Research academic clinical lecturer at King's College London, said: "While it is reported this boy did not have any underlying conditions and was thought to be otherwise healthy, it is important that a coroner assesses whether a post-mortem is necessary to further understand the exact cause of death.

"While chronic underlying medical conditions are known to result in worse outcomes in COVID-19 infection, we have heard of cases of younger individuals with no known medical problems succumbing to the disease.

"It is essential that we undertake research to determine why a proportion of deaths occur outside of the groups expected to succumb to infection as it may indicate an underlying genetic susceptibility of how the immune system interacts with the virus.

"Determining if this is the case could help us to learn more about the interaction of the virus with the immune system and subsequently what further treatments may be suitable in patients with severe infection."

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