How COVID-19 Affects Children Vital to Understanding, Slowing Pandemic, Doctors Say

Little kid washing their hands in a white sink

Understanding how infectious diseases affect children differently than adults can yield important insights, researchers say.

Though COVID-19 so far appears to be largely sparing children, researchers are cautioning that it is critical to understand how the virus affects kids to model the pandemic accurately, limit the disease’s spread and ensure the youngest patients get the care they need.

The warning comes from Dr. Steven L. Zeichner, the head of UVA Health’s Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Andrea T. Cruz, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Houston’s Baylor College of Medicine. They co-wrote a commentary in the journal Pediatrics accompanying a new article that reveals a small percentage of infected children become seriously ill. Those at greatest risk include babies and preschoolers.

“Many infectious diseases affect children differently than adults and understanding those differences can yield important insights,” the commentary authors write. “This will likely be true for COVID-19, just as it was for older infectious diseases.” 

Assessing COVID-19 Risks

Zeichner and Cruz note that there are subgroups of children who appear to be at greater risk of COVID-19 complications – particularly those who are younger, immunocompromised or have other pulmonary health problems.

Dr. Steven L. Zeichner headshot of him in the lab

Dr. Steven L. Zeichner is the head of UVA Health’s Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and an inventor of technology to develop vaccines rapidly that is being patented by UVA. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

However, the presence of other viral infections in up to two-thirds of childhood coronavirus cases makes it very difficult to assess the true effect of COVID-19 on children, they report. (This figure is based on prior studies of children with coronaviruses detectable in the respiratory tract.)

While much remains unknown, Cruz and Zeichner caution that children, even asymptomatic children, could play a “major role” in disease transmission. For example, they cite a study that found the virus remained in children’s stool for several weeks after diagnosis. That, combined with other routes of transmission such as nasal secretions, could pose a major challenge for schools, day care centers and the children’s families, they note.

“Since many children infected with COVID-19 appear to have mild symptoms, or even no symptoms at all, it is important to practice all the social distancing, hygiene and other precautions being recommended by public health authorities to minimize transmission from children to others, including family members who may be at greater risk from the infection, such as grandparents or family members with chronic medical conditions,” said Zeichner, who is working on innovative potential COVID-19 vaccines in his lab. “In addition, studies of the reasons why children are affected differently than adults by the infection may yield insights that can be helpful in understanding the disease and ways to treat or prevent it.”

About the Authors

Zeichner holds appointments in the UVA School of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics and the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Cancer Biology. He is part of UVA Children’s Child Health Research Center. Cruz is part of Baylor’s Department of Pediatrics. They are associate editors of the Pediatrics journal.

In addition, Zeichner is an inventor of technology to develop vaccines rapidly that is being patented by UVA.

Their commentary accompanies the article “Epidemiology of COVID-19 Among Children in China” by Yuanyuan Dong, Xi Mo, Yabin Hu, Xin Qi, Fang Jiang, Zhongyi Jiang and Shilu Tong.

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Media Contact

Josh Barney

UVA Health