Scientists have been baffled by this new form of coronavirus, which defies the expected pattern of viral contagion. With any virus outbreak, it tends to be the very young and the very old - who generally have the most vulnerable immune systems - that are worst affected. However, according to a recently released paper analysing almost 45,000 cases in China, when it comes to Covid-19, children and even babies appear to be more protected from the virus than people in any other age range.
“It is very surprising,” says Dr Frank Esper, paediatric infectious disease specialist at Cleveland Clinic Children’s, “not only because there are so few deaths in children with this coronavirus, but there have been very few infections in children found at all.”
The fatality rate in children under 10 years old so far is 0 per cent, and fewer than 2 per cent of cases were found in children under the age of 19 (compared to 87% in adults aged between 30 and 79 years old). The fatality rate among the young in general is very low at 0.2 per cent, but once people enter their 40s the risk of death rises steeply, doubling per decade until it reaches 3.6 per cent for those in their 60s, 8 per cent for those in their 70s and just under 15 per cent for those in their 80s.
“There are many coronaviruses out there and four coronaviruses seem to spread in humans every year,” says Dr Frank Esper of Cleveland Clinic Children’s. “We oftentimes find coronaviruses both in adults and children at fairly comparable numbers. Based on what we have seen in China, this coronavirus has a substantial predisposition for older people.”
Why might children be more protected?
This is a rapidly changing situation and the figures that we have only reflect what we know so far from China – the demographic distribution may be different as the virus spreads across the globe.
However there are some schools of thought as to why children may be less susceptible to this new disease. “Right now there are only theories,” emphasises Dr Esper. “One thought is smoking could be a big factor in getting infected and gravely sick with this coronavirus. Obviously smoking occurs more often in adults and the older you are the longer you may have smoked putting you at higher risk. Another theory is pollution. Older individuals have lived longer breathing in pollution which may put their lungs at risk for this coronavirus.”
Other experts suggest that children may just be exhibiting milder symptoms, as they often do with regular seasonal flu, and so may not be counted in assessment of Covid-19 figures, while some postulate that children may benefit from a certain amount of ‘umbrella immunity’ from frequent exposure to multiple forms of coronaviruses in daycare and school settings.
What does this mean for how we safeguard our children against Covid-19?
While the findings so far are certainly comforting for parents to some extent, and panicking never helps anyone, there are still many unknowns. “I was reassured when I saw that few children were getting sick. However, it’s not zero,” says Cleveland Clinic Children’s paediatric infectious disease specialist Dr Frank Esper. “There still are children and even a few infants which have become infected. Thankfully , no paediatric deaths have been reported.”
In the wake of the UAE Ministry of Education’s precautionary decision to close nurseries across the emirates until further notice, Dr Esper predicts that there could be further school closures across the world. “I expect there will be school closures. Health administrations have braced for this possibility. Again, just because the children seem more resilient against infection or severe illness doesn’t mean it is zero. Also, this virus may mutate again and could become more likely to infect children. There are also plenty of adults who are at risk who work at schools. Sometimes the closure of schools occurs because the staff are also sick, not just children.”
Precautionary measures you can take
For the time being, experts everywhere recommend that the standard safeguarding practices against infectious disease – namely, frequent handwashing – be employed to keep your family as safe as possible. “The best protection against this virus , along with all other viruses, is good hand washing,” says Dr Esper. “Clean your hands by washing them with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains 60%–95% alcohol immediately after coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose. Soap and water should be used if hands are visibly dirty. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing. Stay home if you are sick.”
Find out whether your child should wear a face mask to protect against coronavirus and how to wear face masks so they actually work (instead of making things worse) here.