Australian kids at low risk of COVID-19 , according to new study

Photo:Getty Images
Photo:Getty Images Photo: Getty Images

Less than one per cent of children tested positive to COVID-19 and no kids required hospitalisation, finds the first study of Australian children and adolescents amid the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, there were no cases of the multi-system inflammatory syndrome similar to Kawasaki disease, which have been linked to several deaths in children overseas. 

The research, which has been published in Emergency Medicine Australasia, should help allay the fears of anxious parents as children return to the classrooms after weeks of home learning.

"The rate is low and none of the children were unwell enough to be admitted to hospital," co-author Dr Laila Ibrahim of Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI) told Essential Kids. "It's very reassuring."

As part of the study, lead by MCRI, researchers looked at data from pediatric patients presenting to The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne, during the early stages of the pandemic in Australia. The 30-day period began after the first positive case was diagnosed at the hospital on 21 March and ended on 19 April. 

Of the 434 patients who presented with COVID-19 symptoms to the emergency department or the respiratory infection clinic,just four tested positive. None were admitted to hospital or developed severe symptoms and all recovered within two weeks. Three out of four had been overseas and all four had contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19.

Interestingly, while only one of the children had a fever, three out of four had headaches. "That's an uncommon symptom in young children," Dr Ibrahim says. 

Based on their findings, Dr Ibrahim and her team hope to reassure parents concerned about bringing their children to hospital for treatment, for fear of contracting COVID-19.

"Families of children with co-morbidities or those with symptoms requiring evaluation need reassurance that their children are not at higher risk when seeking medical attention," they write.

Dr Ibrahim tells Essential Kids that pediatricians have seen a reduction in numbers of children presenting to emergency. "Hospitals are a safe place with a very low risk of being exposed to COVID-19, and community transmission over the course of the study period was also low," she says, adding that Australia has responded "extremely well to the threat."

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"The data shows that many worried parents are coming to the hospital when their child has a cough or fever, but of over 400 children tested, only four tested positive to COVID-19," she continues. "We do want to encourage families to come and seek help if they're not well."

Co-author Dr Shidan Tosif, also of MCRI, said the study highlighted the success of out-patient treatment for children with the coronavrius. "We were confident that treating children with COVID-19 in the home was the best option," he said.

Dr Tosif also confirmed that there were no cases of the multisystem inflammatory syndrome similar to Kawasaki disease which has been reported overseas. Its presence, however, is being carefully monitored. "Australians have participated so well in physical distancing measures that we expect to see no or low numbers of patients with this rare complication, even though we are watching very, very carefully for it," he said.'

Last week, Australia's Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy told National Cabinet the risk of seeing the rare disease in Australian children remained low. 

"We had a discussion on the very rare condition in children, which you've all heard about from overseas, the paediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome," Prof Murphy said. "I was able to brief them on the fact that this is extremely rare and probably unlikely to be seen in Australia, given our very, very low number of infections in children."

The new study comes ahead of children around Australia returning to school for face-to-face teaching, with Dr Ibrahim noting that parents should feel reassured by the data that it's safe to do so.

"Our numbers are low and those who do get it are not that unwell," she says. "So there's two reasons then, we should have some reassurance that it's safe to send our kids back to school." Dr Ibrahim does, however, underscore the importance of teachers and students returning to "safe environments".

And she says children should be kept home if they're unwell.

"If they have anything at all they shouldn't be going to school," she says, adding that kids should also be taken for testing. "[The coronavirus] looks very much like other normal viruses. You can't tell from symptoms alone if it's COVID or not. So if  hey have any respiratory symptoms or fever they should get tested," she says.

And while questions remain about why kids aren't as severely affected by the coronavirus as adults, Dr Ibrahim says it's something they're exploring at MCRI as part of a landmark study into children's immunity and COVID-19.

"We don't have the answers yet, but we're looking into it," she says.