RUSSELL VINER: 'Unlikely' to be a new virus strain targeting kids

It’s a mystery… but let’s not panic just yet: Emergence of a new strain of coronavirus that targets children is ‘incredibly unlikely’, writes Professor RUSSELL VINER

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The first thing I want to stress about suggestions that a new Covid-19-related condition might be emerging in children is that everything we know about this strain of coronavirus indicates that it generally affects them very little, if at all. 

In the youngest age groups, deaths associated with this virus are rare and there is very good evidence worldwide that they are the part of the population least affected.

That said, some paediatricians have begun to notice a currently unexplained pattern among a very small number of children who have become more seriously ill. 

Prof Russell Viner, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has written in Wednesday’s edition of The Daily Mail

These have been reported mainly in London, but also in other parts of the country and by colleagues in Spain, Italy and Ireland. Again, I emphasise that we are talking about only a handful of cases — thought to be around 20 in the UK. 

They present with varied symptoms including abdominal pain, seizures and rashes. 

But what they seem to have in common is an over-activity of the immune system and inflammation of the blood vessels and heart. 

Some of the youngsters affected have required intensive care. As has been reported, there are some similarities with both Kawasaki disease — which inflames the blood vessels and affects around eight in 100,000 children, mainly the underfives — and with toxic shock syndrome, a rare complication of certain bacterial infections. 

However, what we are seeing are not classic presentations of either and so we are rapidly researching these cases, talking to doctors across the UK and our best child health scientists, as well as our counterparts internationally, to identify the underlying causes. 

In some cases, the children affected have tested positive for coronavirus, in others they have not. Since our tests for Covid-19 are not fail safe, it remains unclear whether these symptoms are related to the virus or not. Nothing can be ruled out. 

Most diseases have been around for years and we are familiar with all the different ways they present. With a new threat like this novel strain of coronavirus, we are familiar only with the most common manifestations — and it takes months to see enough of the rare presentations to fit it all together as a pattern. 

But I suspect that it’s incredibly unlikely that we are talking about a new strain of the virus which targets children. 

I’ll say again that coronavirus does not appear to affect children in the same way as it does adults.

And bear in mind too that, just as there are ever-evolving strains of seasonal flu affecting the elderly, so every year sees fresh challenges to the health of the young, often in the form of new viruses. 

Strawberry tongues and bright swollen lips are signs of Kawasake disease, which has been compared to a new syndrome affecting children during the coronavirus pandemic

This was the case long before Covid was around. In the past, we haven’t taken the step of closing the nation’s schools while researching and identifying such novel threats, and I don’t think that early reports of this new condition are justification in themselves for extending the period we keep the schools closed during the current coronavirus pandemic. 

Indeed, rather than being a cause for alarm, the fact that this apparently new condition has been spotted is, I would argue, testimony to the ‘joined-upness’ of the NHS. 

Most other health systems are far more fragmented. As for parents concerned about whether their child has this particular condition, the symptoms are so wide-ranging that there is, I’m afraid, no straightforward way to know whether they should be worrying or not. 

The RCPCH’s website offers specific advice for those concerned about children and coronavirus. 

But generally I would recommend parents using their judgment and common sense in the same way they would have done in pre-Covid times. If your child is ill, then seek prompt medical advice. 

The NHS is here for you.

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