Coronavirus: Why are children less at risk?

Age is a known risk factor for coronavirus complications.

In the 10 weeks between 28 March and 5 June, six people aged 14 or under died with the infection in England and Wales.

This compares with 24,511 in those between 75 and 90 years old.

Concerns have been raised that while the vast majority of youngsters recover from the coronavirus, they may still be capable of passing it to vulnerable adults – hence why officials stressed grandparents should not be called upon to provide childcare.

This has been up for debate, however, with some research suggesting children are less likely to catch the coronavirus in the first place, let alone become seriously ill.

Early research suggests the infection is mild in four out of five cases, but it can trigger a respiratory disease called COVID-19.

Young child wearing a respiratory mask as a prevention against the Coronavirus Covid-19. Little boy wearing anti virus mask staying at home. Protection against flu and virus infection
Children become less ill with the coronavirus, but may still pass it on. (Getty Images)

Why do children develop less severe coronavirus complications?

The vast majority of coronavirus deaths worldwide have occurred in elderly people.

Italian scientists looked at more than 1,000 children with the infection.

Just one, a 13-month-old baby, developed a severe case of COVID-19, and went on to make a full recovery.

Similar findings came to light in a small study of 34 young coronavirus patients in China.

All the children had either mild (18%) or moderate (82%) signs of the infection.

Youngsters are thought to have “sharper” immune systems, which helps them defeat pathogens.

“As we get older, so do our immune systems, which results in them becoming slower and less effective at fighting off infections that we have previously come across,” Professor Arne Akbar from the British Society for Immunology has previously said.

The opposite is true, however, with seasonal flu.

Young children make up some of those eligible for a free flu vaccine on the NHS, with the virus having potentially devastating consequences due to their underdeveloped immune system.

When it comes to the coronavirus, scientists from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York have suggested the cells that line children’s nostrils may have something to do with their lower risk.

After looking at cell samples from people between four and 60 years old, they found the gene that produces the protein ACE2 was expressed at lower levels in the youngsters.

ACE2 is the receptor that helps the coronavirus enter the body.

While most children with the infection escape unscathed, the coronavirus outbreak has coincided with a rise in a mysterious inflammatory disease in young people.

NHS doctors were told to look out for signs of “multi-system inflammation” after intensive care units in London saw eight children with unusual symptoms, some of whom tested positive for the coronavirus.

A study later revealed how 10 children developed a “rare inflammatory disorder” in the Bergamo province of Italy after the outbreak emerged in the north of the country.

Eight of these youngsters tested positive for coronavirus antibodies, with the Italian doctors wondering if the other two were false-negatives.

“There is apparently a small risk but no grounds for panic,” Professor Alastair Sutcliffe from UCL previously said.

Are children less likely to catch the coronavirus?

While children rarely suffer ill effects from the coronavirus, experts have questioned to what extent they catch the infection in the first place.

Scientists from UCL found youngsters are 56% less likely to catch the coronavirus than someone over 20.

A team from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) later duplicated these findings, estimating “susceptibility to infection in individuals under 20 years of age is approximately half that of adults aged over 20 years”.

Although unclear, the pathogen may not take hold as easily in young lungs.

Exposure to milder strains of the coronavirus class, like those that cause colds, may also give children some immunity.

A boy wearing a face mask sits on a suitcase at Beijing's international airport on June 17, 2020. - Beijing's airports cancelled more than 1,200 flights and schools in the Chinese capital were closed again on June 17 as authorities rushed to contain a new coronavirus outbreak linked to a wholesale food market. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)
A boy wears a mask at Beijing's international airport. (Getty Images)

To what extent do children spread the coronavirus?

Scientists have been unable to conclude whether children who are infected pass the coronavirus on as readily as adults.

It has been suggested, however, youngsters likely play a lesser role in the transmission of the virus because fewer become infected in the first place.

The coronavirus mainly spreads face to face via infected droplets expelled in a cough or sneeze.

With coughing and sneezing both symptoms, someone with no or just mild signs of the infection would theoretically transmit less of the virus.

Speaking of the LSHTM study, Professor Mark Woolhouse from the University of Edinburgh said: “[The scientists] were not able to determine whether young people are also less infectious, though this could be the case if infectiousness is linked to the severity of symptoms”.

Anyone with the coronavirus’s tell-tale fever, cough, or loss of taste or smell has been told to self-isolate entirely at home for seven days, while other members of their household must do so for two weeks.

If an unsuspecting person does not have these symptoms, they are free to go out, unwittingly putting others at risk.

This was part of the rationale behind Boris Johnson’s decision to temporarily close schools on 20 March.

The move was met with both praise and criticism. UCL scientists argued that “children are not the main drivers of infection”, and that closing schools would have a “marginal effect”.

Some pointed out, however, that the closure was combined with extreme social distancing during the UK’s lockdown.

A Palestinian child wears a face mask during a photo session to celebrate the end of the school year in their nursery amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis in Gaza City June 8, 2020.   (Photo by Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A girl wears a mask during a photo session to celebrate the end of the school year in Gaza City. (Getty Images)

What is the coronavirus?

The coronavirus is one of seven strains of a virus class that are known to infect humans.

Others cause everything from the common cold to severe acute respiratory syndrome (Sars), which killed 774 people during its 2002/3 outbreak.

Since the coronavirus outbreak was identified at the end of 2019, more than 8.1 million cases have been confirmed worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Of these cases, close to 4 million are known to have recovered.

Globally, the death toll has exceeded 444,000.

Although the coronavirus mainly spreads via coughs and sneezes, there is also evidence it is transmitted in faeces and can survive on surfaces.

The infection has no “set” treatment, with most patients naturally fighting it off.

Those requiring hospitalisation are given “supportive care”, like ventilation, while their immune system gets to work.

Officials urge people ward off infection by washing their hands regularly and maintaining social distancing.

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