Myth: Children are “safe” from coronavirus
Airway infections such as coughs and colds are common among children, and they often pass these on to parents and other carers. So are they themselves at greater (or less) risk from catching the new coronavirus?
Early signs suggest that while children can get COVID-19, their risk appears to be relatively low and they are usually mildly affected. While this should be of some comfort to parents it does not mean that we should be complacent. Even if a child is only mildly affected they can still pass on the infection to adults, who may develop more serious complications. Also if most cases in children are mild, not all may be being detected.
Steps such as washing hands regularly and not touching mouth, nose, or eyes with unclean hands are key to avoiding infection in people of all ages. These help to protect both the individual themselves and those around them.
Where did the story come from?
All parents know that infections such as the winter vomiting bug (norovirus) or chickenpox can spread like wildfire through nurseries and schools. Therefore the obvious concern with a new virus, like the one that causes COVID-19, is that children could be more susceptible. However, more recent news has suggested that children may be “safe” from coronavirus.
What is the basis for the claim?
As the COVID-19 outbreak emerged bodies such as the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stepped in to address anticipated fears that children might be more susceptible or more severely affected.
Such fears would be understandable given that the disease has often been compared with flu, a disease which children can be key in spreading and which can have serious consequences. In fact, flu is reportedly more likely to result in hospitalisation in preschool children than any other age group, although death rates are low.
However, as more data has been collected it looks like relatively few confirmed COVID-19 cases have been in children, and that they are relatively mildly affected.
The largest published study of coronavirus so far has come from China where the outbreak started. This study found that just over 2% of confirmed cases were in children and young people aged up to 19 years old. Only one death had been reported in this age group (about 0.1% of those affected).
A small Chinese study reported that COVID-19 in children was generally mild, but some children did show signs of having pneumonia. Parents do still need to ensure that their children wash their hands just like adults, and if they are infected, take the recommended precautionary measures.
What do trusted sources say?
The initial research findings have allayed some fears about COVID-19 in children. However, there is still much we don’t know, and children cannot be ignored in preventive measures or planning for combating the disease.
On February 28th the WHO said “Disease in children appears to be relatively rare and mild,” with those under 19 years making up only 2.4% of the total cases.
The UK government has issued specific guidance for educational settings on preventing and dealing with COVID-19. School closures are among the measures that the UK government will consider to slow the spread of the disease if it does become established here.
- Scott S. Who is vulnerable to coronavirus? So far children appear safe from COVID-19. ABC News, 2 March 2020. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-01/who-is-most-likely-to-get-coronavirus-children-appear-safe/12013842 (accessed 5 March 2020)
- The Novel Coronavirus Pneumonia Emergency Response Epidemiology Team. Vital Surveillances: The Epidemiological Characteristics of an Outbreak of 2019 Novel Coronavirus Diseases (COVID-19) — China, 2020. China CDC Weekly 2020; 2(8): 113-122. http://weekly.chinacdc.cn/en/article/id/e53946e2-c6c4-41e9-9a9b-fea8db1a8f51
- Cai J et al. A case series of children with 2019 novel coronavirus infection: clinical and epidemiological features. Clinical Infectious Diseases 2020; ciaa198. https://doi.org/10.1093/cid/ciaa198 (accepted manuscript; accessed 5 March 2020)
- UK Department for Education & Public Health England. COVID-19: guidance for educational settings. Updated 28 February 2020. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/guidance-to-educational-settings-about-covid-19/guidance-to-educational-settings-about-covid-19 (accessed 5 March 2020)
- UK Department of Health and Social Care. Coronavirus action plan: a guide to what you can expect across the UK. 3 March 2020. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-action-plan/coronavirus-action-plan-a-guide-to-what-you-can-expect-across-the-uk (accessed 5 March 2020)
- US CDC. Frequently Asked Questions and Answers: Coronavirus Disease-2019 (COVID-19) and Children. Last reviewed 1 March 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/specific-groups/children-faq.html (accessed 5 March 2020)