COVID-19 Less Severe in Children, Yet Questions for Pediatricians Remain

Jake Remaly

April 06, 2020


COVID-19 is less severe in children, compared with adults, early data suggest. "Yet many questions remain, especially regarding the effects on children with special health care needs," according to a viewpoint recently published in JAMA Pediatrics.

The COVID-19 pandemic also raises questions about clinic visits for healthy children in communities with widespread transmission and about the unintended effects of school closures and other measures aimed at slowing the spread of the disease, wrote Sonja A. Rasmussen, MD, and Lindsay A. Thompson, MD, both of the University of Florida, Gainesville.

In communities with widespread outbreaks, telephone triage and expanded use of telehealth may be needed to limit nonurgent clinic visits, they suggested.

"Community mitigation interventions, such as school closures, cancellation of mass gatherings, and closure of public places are appropriate" in places with widespread transmission, Dr. Rasmussen and Dr. Thompson wrote. "If these measures are required, pediatricians need to advocate to alleviate unintended consequences or inadvertent expansion of health disparities on children, such as by finding ways to maintain nutrition for those who depend on school lunches and provide online mental health services for stress management for families whose routines might be severely interrupted for an extended period of time."

Continued preventive care for infants and vaccinations for younger children may be warranted, they wrote.

Clinical Course

Overall, children have experienced lower-than-expected rates of COVID-19 disease, and deaths in this population appear to be rare, Dr. Rasmussen and Dr. Thompson wrote.

Common symptoms of COVID-19 in adults include fever, cough, myalgia, shortness of breath, headache, and diarrhea, and children have similar manifestations. In adults, older age and underlying illness increase the risk of severe disease. There has not been convincing evidence of intrauterine transmission of COVID-19, and whether breastfeeding can transmit the virus is unknown, they noted.

An analysis of more than 72,000 cases from China found that 1.2% were in patients aged 10-19 years, and 0.9% were in patients younger than 10 years. One death occurred in the adolescent age range. A separate analysis of 2,143 confirmed and suspected pediatric cases in China indicated that infants were at higher risk of severe disease (11%), compared with older children – 4% for those aged 11-15 years, and 3% in those 16 years and older.

There is less data available about the clinical course of COVID-19 in children in the United States, the authors noted. But among more than 4,000 patients with COVID-19 in the United States through March 16, no ICU admissions or deaths were reported for patients aged younger than 19 years (MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2020 Mar 26;69[12]:343-6).

Still, researchers have suggested that children with underlying illness may be at greater risk of COVID-19. In a study of 20 children with COVID-19 in China, 7 of the patients had a history of congenital or acquired disease, potentially indicating that they were more susceptible to the virus (Pediatr Pulmonol. 2020 Mar 5. doi: 10.1002/ppul.24718).

Chest CT consolidations with surrounding halo sign was evident in half of the patients, and procalcitonin elevation was seen in 80% of the children; these were signs common in children, but not in adults with COVID-19.

"About 10% of children in the U.S. have asthma; many children live with other pulmonary, cardiac, neuromuscular, or genetic diseases that affect their ability to handle respiratory disease, and other children are immunosuppressed because of illness or its treatment," Dr. Rasmussen and Dr. Thompson wrote. "It is possible that these children will experience COVID-19 differently than counterparts of the same ages who are healthy."

The authors reported that they had no financial disclosures.

SOURCE: Rasmussen SA, Thompson LA. JAMA Pediatr. 2020 Apr 3. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.1224.

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