One of the few reassuring aspects of the effects of COVID-19 has been that it has a markedly mild effect on young children, with the majority of young ones that contract the disease developing only mild symptoms. But an alarming trend is being reported by medical professionals in the UK and US in that an increasing number of children are being admitted to ICUs with complications stemming from their coronavirus infections—and in a handful of rare but tragic cases, a number of children have died.
In the US alone, more than 24,000 children have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the COVKID Tracking and Education Project, with more than 500,000 estimated to have been infected across the country since the pandemic began. Unfortunately, 211 children between the ages of 0 and 17 have been hospitalized in intensive care units, and 20 have died from their infections, with at least five of these deaths occurring in children under 5 years old.
Although the vast majority of children that contract COVID-19 only experience mild symptoms, the coronavirus can cause life-threatening inflammation of the heart and other organs that appears similar to a rare condition that can afflict children less than five years old called Kawasaki syndrome, in which the walls of the arteries throughout the body become inflamed. These reports match those of cases being reported in Italy, Spain and the UK.
“Some children present with what looks like aseptic meningitis. Some present with diarrhea. It’s a challenging virus because it can look like a lot of different things,” Schleiss said. “Before you treat a child for Kawasaki, you now have to step back and say, ‘Is this COVID-19?'”
On April 27, Britain’s national health authority issued an alert warning of an “apparent rise in the number of children of all ages presenting with a multi-system inflammatory state requiring intensive care across London and also in other regions,” that appeared to be linked to COVID-19. The cases seen over the previous three weeks had “common overlapping features” of toxic shock syndrome and other conditions that resulted in dangerous blood vessel inflammation, a description identical to what doctors in the US have been reporting.
“There are some children who have died who didn’t have underlying health conditions,” according to UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock. “It is rare, although it is very significant for those children who do get it; the number of cases is small.” Hancock declined to provide an exact figure for the number of deaths.
One of the youngest Americans to fall victim to COVID-19 was 5-year-old Skylar Herbert, a young girl from Detroit that had no previous health conditions. Within days of telling her parents about headaches she was having, Skylar was diagnosed with COVID-19; she was admitted to hospital with a rare form of meningitis and placed on a ventilator. She died on April 19, although unlike many stricken with the disease, her family was with her at the time.
“The numbers are low,” said Janet A. Englund, Professor of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, putting the numbers into perspective. “Until it’s your child.”