Down Syndrome Tied to Tenfold Risk for Death From COVID-19

Ricki Lewis, PhD

October 26, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

People with Down syndrome who contract COVID-19 face a fivefold increased risk for hospitalization and a tenfold increased risk for death compared with infected individuals who do not have the syndrome, researchers report in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Since the pandemic began, public health and infectious disease experts have identified comorbidities that elevate the risk for serious complications or death from COVID-19. In the United Kingdom and the United States, Down syndrome hasn't been on that list. The authors of the new report argue that it should be.

Down syndrome might be associated with more severe COVID-19, owing to "the immune dysregulation, such as differences in T cell function," said first author Ashley Kieran Clift, MA, MBBS, clinical research fellow at the University of Oxford, Oxford, United Kingdom. "People with Down syndrome have a higher risk of pneumonia and viral respiratory tract infections, which may also apply to this novel coronavirus. They have high rates of other conditions that may make them more vulnerable, such as heart and lung disease. There could also be a role for their environment, such as living in care homes or other institutions."

The researchers analyzed data from a UK government-sponsored cohort study of 8.26 million adults older than 19 years. The data included information on COVID-19 test results; records of associated hospitalizations and deaths; whether or not a person also had Down syndrome; and information on age, sex, ethnicity, alcohol intake, smoking status, body mass index (BMI), comorbidities, and medications.

The cohort included 4053 people with Down syndrome. Of those, during the study period, from January 24 until June 30, 2020, 68 died ―39.7% of COVID-19, 25.0% of pneumonia or pneumonitis, and 35.3% of other causes. By contrast, among the 8,252,105 people who did not have Down syndrome, 41,685 died; the cause of death was listed as COVID-19 for 20.3%, pneumonia or pneumonitis for 14.4%, and other causes for 65.3%.

The hazard ratio (HR) for death related to COVID-19 was 10.39 (CI, 7.08 – 15.23) and for hospitalization, 4.94 (CI, 3.63 – 6.73) after adjusting for age, sex, ethnicity, BMI, dementia diagnosis, living in a care home, congenital heart disease, and other comorbidities and treatments. For individuals who had learning disabilities but not Down syndrome, the adjusted HR for COVID-19–related death was only 1.27 (CI, 1.16 – 1.40).

Corresponding author Julia Hippisley-Cox, MD, professor of clinical epidemiology and general practice, St. Anne's College, University of Oxford, said that although the study was observational and did not identify reasons for the elevated risk, "we feel that clinicians, policymakers, and other healthcare workers should be aware of potential risks. These findings could be used by healthcare workers within the context of other factors to have a more nuanced risk assessment for their patients."

That might entail weighing the relative risks and benefits of measures that protect against infection vs the values of socialization in day care programs and physical and occupational therapies. It's a balancing act, Hippisley-Cox said.

Preston McCormack, MD, assistant professor or internal medicine and pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences College of Medicine, Little Rock, Arkansas, agreed that caution is warranted in navigating care during this challenging time.

"It's well known that Down syndrome patients are at increased risk. However, with these data surfacing, it may be a good time to reassess how we plan to move forward," McCormack said. "The risk, even after adjustment for age, sex, and associated comorbidities, remains impressive and demands attention as we approach another viral season this fall and upcoming winter.

"The fact that most in this population require more frequent medical follow-up, therapy, and other ancillary services further compounds this risk," he continued. "The decision to restrict patients from these care providers will likely have to be determined on an individual basis, though it is imperative that we are continually informed of the risks vs benefits of these decisions. Without a doubt, we are unable to optimize therapy and socialization in this pandemic landscape. However, this expense is offset with minimization of significant risk quantified in this recent study."

Ann Intern Med. Published online October 21, 2020. Abstract

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