Coronavirus is scary but children are the least at risk group.
At time of writing two UK MPs are self-isolating for coronavirus. Italy is in lockdown, and travel restrictions are in place across much of the globe.
German chancellor Angerla Merkel has warned that, in the worst case scenario, 70% of Germans could be infected. In the UK 1140 people are confirmed to have the illness, 21 of whom have sadly died. Experts expect this to be the tip of a very large iceberg.
These are scary times for everyone, but if there’s a sliver of good news among the panic-inducing statistics, it’s surely that the one group the virus seems to have spared up to now is children.
Coronavirus usually mild in children
This news will come as a huge relief to worried parents, who may have assumed that immature immune systems would be least equipped to fight a new and potentially deadly threat.
In fact, the opposite appears to be true. In China, where the virus originated, only 2.4% of reported cases were in children, and of those only 0.2% became critically ill. Not a single Chinese child has died of the disease.
There’s a caveat here. There aren’t that many cases to draw conclusions from, especially in newborns and babies under one year old. Nevertheless, from what we know so far it seems that the younger you are, the less serious the coronavirus is.
Erring on the side of caution, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states: “Limited reports from China suggest that children with confirmed COVID-19 may present with mild symptoms and though severe complications (acute respiratory distress syndrome, septic shock) have been reported, they appear to be uncommon.”
from what we know so far it seems that the younger you are, the less serious the new coronavirus is
Why isn’t coronavirus making more children sicker?
By producing only mild symptoms in most children, coronavirus is behaving differently to many viruses, including normal seasonal flu.
With normal flu, serious cases map as a U-shaped curve, with the very young and very old the worst affected. But as one virologist told the Washington Post, “with this virus, one side of the U is just completely missing.”
So what’s going on? The truth is we just don’t know. Some experts theorise that it might be because older lungs have been weakened by pollution or smoking. Or that the virus exaggerates issues like hypertension in older sufferers.
Scientists have also found in trials with mice that older immune systems tend to overreact to coronavirus infections in a way younger ones don’t, damaging healthy tissue. That in itself is strange – developing immune systems are usually more sensitive than mature ones.
Some evidence from China suggests that children become infected with coronavirus at the same rate as adults. But that milder symptoms means fewer children appear in official statistics. We simply don’t yet know why that might be.
Children suffer from coronavirus in other ways
But coronavirus can harm children in other ways, or at least the panic around the pandemic can. Children see adults worrying, and particularly their parents, and become anxious themselves. They see endless reports about the slow spread of the virus and become concerned for grandparents and friends with underlying health issues.
With that in mind, talking to children about coronavirus is essential. Experts suggest these ways to address the topic.
- Do talk to children. If not, they are left with the worse case scenario stories they pick up in the playground or from overhearing news reports. Give them accurate information about the virus, its effects and its spread. You can find answers to frequently asked questions here.
- Give them just enough information, but not too much. If you talk too much about it, it might create alarm. Don’t make it seem like you’re dwelling on it (even if you are).
- Be calm and rational. As an expert at Harvard says, “children will look to you to see how afraid they should be.” If you seem calm, they will be calm too.
- Everybody, children included, likes to feel in control during difficult times. So educate them on the things they can do, from thorough hand washing to coughing and sneezing into tissues and then throwing them away.
For the latest information on the coronavirus outbreak, see the advice for the public given out by the World Health Organisation.
For advice on what to do if you have symptoms of the illness (which can also be symptoms of other illnesses), see the NHS advice.