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Infectious Diseases

Updated 23 April 2020

Coronavirus hitting younger children harder than we thought

According to a new study, for each child who requires intensive care for Covid-19 there are approximately 2 381 children infected with the coronavirus.

The new coronavirus virus has been lying low when it comes to infection rates among children, but a new study from the University of South Florida (USF) and the Women's Institute for Independent Social Enquiry (WiiSE) suggests that the number of cases may actually be higher than currently reported.

According to a calculation following a report from the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the researchers estimate that for each child who requires intensive care for Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, there are 2 381 children infected with the virus.

The study was published in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice.

More about the study

The recent discovery could greatly underestimate the demand on health care systems and paediatric intensive care units (PICUs), the researchers stressed, adding that paediatric coronavirus-cases are more complex than adult cases, as the majority of hospitals prohibit visitors in order to comply with physical distancing and quarantine rules, and that once children are discharged, it becomes especially tricky to get them to comply with self-isolation. 

Their research indicates that, in the event of 25% of the US population becoming infected with the virus before the end of 2020, as many as 50 000 children will need to be hospitalised due to severe illness.

More than this, they estimate that, following this, 5 400 of the children will be in a critical condition and will require mechanical ventilation.

Clinical reports indicate the average length of hospital stay for paediatric patients with Covid-19 is 14 days.

"Although the risk of severe illness from Covid-19 is lower in paediatric cases than adults, hospitals should be prepared and have the proper equipment and staffing levels to deal with a potential influx of younger patients," Jason Salemi, associate professor of epidemiology in the USF College of Public Health and one of the authors of the paper, wrote.

Salemi added: "Government officials and policy makers should understand the likelihood of capacity challenges, which underscores the importance of effective mitigation strategies such as frequent and thorough handwashing and persisted physical distancing measures."

What does it look like for South Africa?

Children are in the minority when it comes to coronavirus infections, and experts agree that this may be due to the fact that our immune systems generally deteriorate as we age, explains a Health24 article.

And having a weakened immune system usually brings on chronic diseases, making it even harder to fight infections.

So far, children seem to be mildly affected with no fatalities, notes the World Health Organization (WHO). However, research shows that although children might not display many Covid-19 symptoms, virus transmission from children is high.

As of 20 April, South Africa has 3 158 confirmed cases. Out of these, nine infections have occurred in children under the age of 10, with no deaths reported. The latest available data indicate that the youngest age of fatality is 46 years.

Coronavirus among low-income families

For children from low-income families, the infection rate can be expected to be much higher, the researchers cautioned. Housing units that are in close proximity with small communal recreation areas also pose a challenge in keeping the virus at bay, they said – a point relatable within a South African context.

The researchers therefore recommend that state health departments begin reporting confirmed Covid-19 cases in age-specific tables, and make the data publicly accessible.

How to discuss Covid-19 with your children

As a parent, approaching the topic of the Covid-19 pandemic and talking to your kids about the potential risks might not be an easy task, but there are some ways to get the message across calmly. A podcast by Parent24 offers six tips for navigating the discussion, as well as tips on helping to reduce your child’s anxiety about the virus.  

The Health Department’s SA Coronavirus website also has a video portal to help you explain Covid-19 to kids.

Image: Getty/Hraun