Young children and babies are not safe from the coronavirus that has gripped the world with fear, doctors warned yesterday.
Experts say the highly contagious infection can still spread between children and youngsters – even though the elderly are most at risk.
And they warn the life-threatening illness may cause unusual symptoms in children, such as stomach aches. The tell-tale symptoms are a cough and fever.
A study in China, where the outbreak began in December, found that almost one in ten patients in the country were under the age of 30.
Even babies have been known to get the virus, which can kill people by causing pneumonia and putting stress on organs.
World Health Organization chiefs have said young people are ‘not invincible’ and could end up in hospital ‘for weeks’.
It comes after it was revealed yesterday that an 18-year-old coronavirus patient from England had become the UK’s youngest victim.
The teenager, one of the 281 deaths reported in the UK, had an underlying health condition – but officials refused to reveal what it was.
Elsewhere, a man in Atlanta revealed his 12-year-old cousin is fighting for her life on a ventilator after testing positive for COVID-19.
And a mother from Cardiff told of the ‘very distressing’ experience watching her six-month-old baby boy battle a fever after catching the virus from his father.
Medical experts have stressed that older people and those with underlying health conditions are at greater risk of falling seriously ill from the virus.
Their bodies are already weaker due to age or a impaired immune system, and therefore find it more difficult to fight off the virus.
But it doesn’t leave children and younger people free to continue their lives as normal, with experts constantly reminding them that they must comply with social distancing measures.
Scientists have suggested that children are just as likely as adults to become infected with the virus.
They are less likely to be develop symptoms which leave them very unwell – which was also true in the SARS and MERS epidemics.
This could be for a number of reasons, including that a child’s immune cells may be more active and resilient, compared to an adults more aged immune system which may not detect the virus as quickly.
There is evidence from China that the virus affects them differently, which may mean cases go undetected.
Young people could also be carriers of the disease without showing any signs, passing it to other people – potentially those at risk – without even knowing it.
Professor Russell Viner, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: ‘It appears that children/ and young people probably catch the infection as much as adults, however they appear to much more frequently have no symptoms (asymptomatic) or very mild symptoms.’
It isn’t impossible for youngsters to become so unwell with COVID-19 that they are hospitalised, and the message has been made abundantly clear as the pandemic worsens.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on March 20: ‘Although older people are hardest hit, younger people are not spared.
‘Data from many countries clearly show that people under 50 make up a significant proportion of patients requiring hospitalization.
‘Today I have a message for young people: You are not invincible, this virus could put you in hospital for weeks or even kill you.
‘Even if you don’t get sick the choices you make about where you go could be the difference between life and death for someone else.’
Dr Petra Zimmerman, of the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, summarised available evidence on coronavirus infections in children earlier this month.
Dr Zimmerman and colleagues said: ‘There is some suggestion that children are just as likely as adults to become infected with the virus but are less likely to be unwell or develop severe symptoms.
‘However, the importance of children in transmitting the virus remains uncertain.
‘Most infected children recover one to two weeks after the onset of symptoms.’
Children infected with COVID-19 had typically been in contact with someone else diagnosed in their home, the researchers report in The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal.
They may be more likely to develop gastrointestinal symptoms, such as diarrhoea or a stomach ache.
Data from China, where most patient research into COVID-19 is emerging, suggests that as many as 10 per cent of patients are under the age of 30.
An analysis of 44,672 patients across the whole country showed that 1.2 per cent were aged 10-19 years old and 0.9 per cent were under the age of 10.
It may sound like a small proportion, but it equates to 549 10-19 year olds, and 416 under 10 year olds.
The February data, published in the journal JAMA, showed that children and adolescents accounted for two percent of hospitalisations. However there were no deaths.
Data for infections and deaths per age bracket is not available in the UK yet because the epidemic is still in its early days.
However the news that an 18-year-old from England had become one of the latest victims of the virus rocked the nation.
No details were given about the teenager who died at University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire. But NHS England said all of the most recent deaths were people in vulnerable groups, including those with underlying conditions.
Professor Viner said: ‘The full circumstances of the death of the 18 year old are unknown but the hospital where he was treated has said that there were “significant underlying health issues”.
‘There was a reported death in China of a teenager… We’ve been told that there have been a very small number of deaths of children and young people in Italy (three to four deaths). We have been told that all of these were in children with pre-existing medical conditions.
‘We understand that a very small number of premature babies may also have died. We know little more about these cases but we understand the deaths of premature babies were probably related to prematurity.’
Adverse outcomes like preterm birth have been reported among babies born to mothers with COVID-19 but these have been in other countries and the details are not clear.
A small number of newborn babies have been diagnosed with coronavirus, including a baby in England, but it is not clear if they were infected by their mother while in the womb, during childbirth, or after.
Health officials stress that babies are at low risk of complications from the virus and most will have mild symptoms. The same goes for pregnant women, but they should take extra precaution just in case, the Government says.
Parents globally have been telling their own heartbreaking stories to serve as a warning to others.
Laura Pearson, from Cardiff, described the ‘very distressing’ 48 hours during which her six-month-old son Gruff started to fall ill with COVID-19.
Gruff developed a fever of 39 degrees as his parents franticly attempted to get him seen by a doctor.
Mrs Pearson, 35, said: ‘My other half started developing symptoms first, in the early hours on Wednesday morning – high temperature, chills, aches and a mild cough.’
On Thursday, Gruff himself began to show coronavirus symptoms of his own.
‘He developed an on-and-off dry cough, but then began feeling very hot,’ Mrs Pearson said.
‘I called our GP because I couldn’t get through on the NHS 111 helpline and we were told to to monitor his condition via the website whenshouldiworry.com, which was set up by medical researchers at Cardiff University.
‘But, as Gruff’s temperature hit 39 degrees we even put out a request to friends on Facebook for a new thermometer because we couldn’t believe the reading on ours and thought it might be broken,’ Mrs Pearson said.
‘Gruff was crying in pain and inconsolable – so we rang the out-of-hours GP number and they advised us to go to hospital.’
Also suffering from bloody diarrhoea, which some medics have named as a less-known by-product of COVID-19, Mrs Pearson and her husband took Gruff to the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff.
There they were admitted to a coronavirus triage centre set up at the onsite Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospital.
‘The staff there were great and Gruff was assessed by a very nice doctor behind a face shield and mask. He told us he had all the classic signs of the illness,’ Mrs Pearson said.
‘We were then told to go home, look after him and self-isolate for two weeks. Now, as both my partner and Gruff seem to be over the worst of it, the biggest danger is that I get it too.’
The freelance communications consultant, who lives in Pontcanna, added: ‘Our son went from a happy and alert little boy to very listless and just not himself at all.
‘It was nothing too bad though, so we managed it the best we could by isolating him in the spare bedroom as best as possible – although, with a baby to look after, that’s easier said than done.’
Justin Anthony said his 12-year-old cousin with no pre-existing conditions is on a ventilator and ‘fighting for her life’ in an Atlanta hospital.
The girl, who was only identified as Emma, was diagnosed with pneumonia on March 15. She has since tested positive for coronavirus but the family do not know how, Mr Anthony told CNN.
‘I know first hand how dangerous it is,’ Mr Anthony said.
‘Everyone keeps saying “it doesn’t impact younger people”.
‘But here’s a 12-year-old fighting for her life.
‘People need to practice social distancing. People need to take care of their children.
‘People need to take this seriously.’
Mr Anthony said Emma was placed on a ventilator at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta-Scottish Rite Hospital, where she is listed in stable condition.
The hospital confirmed that a patient tested positive for COVID-19, but declined to go into details.
Meanwhile, adults who do not fit into the elderly or vulnerable categories are also being told they must stick to social distancing advice because they can also catch the virus.
Those aged between 30 and 50 may be less likely to die from the virus, but they appear to be the most likely to catch it.
The study in China found people aged 30-39 years old make up 17 per cent of patients, while those aged 40-49 account for 19 per cent.
Those in the group 50-59 years are the most likely to catch the virus of all age groups, making up 22.4 per cent of the studied cases.
Labour MP Rosena Allin-Khan, who also works as an A&E doctor, highlighted the risk to middle-aged adults after describing scenes at her work.
She tweeted yesterday evening: ‘Today, I did a shift at my local hospital and the experience was deeply, deeply eye-opening.
‘Previously fit and healthy young people in their 30’s and 40’s, attached to machines, fighting for their lives.
‘This is no joke. Yes, most may get mild symptoms, yes many are older but young, healthy patients are NOT immune. The worst of COVID-19, can be horrific.’