Public Health Insight: Why COVID-19 Affects Children Differently
There are many unknowns when it comes to COVID-19. But according to medical professionals and public health experts, we do know this: The effects of the coronavirus disease are far less severe in children than adults.
In early April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report suggesting that children under the age of 18 who develop COVID-19 are less likely than adults to show symptoms of the coronavirus disease or be hospitalized with the disease. Of all reported COVID-19 cases in the U.S. between February 12 and April 2, only 1.7% were children, even though they make up 22% of the population.1
Statistics also show that the coronavirus disease is less deadly in children. Of the over 21,000 COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. (as of April 21), three of the cases were between the ages of 1 and 14, with the majority of deaths in people over the age of 50.2
“The COVID-19 death rate appears to increase with age, which is a pattern similar to other infectious diseases like measles, SARS, and MERS,” said Dr. Aimee Ferraro, an epidemiologist and senior core faculty member in the Master of Public Health online degree program at Walden University. “We don’t fully understand why this occurs, but one hypothesis is that the innate immunity of children is more active than adults and better able to fight off severe infection.”
In addition to having stronger immune systems, most children are generally healthier than adults and don’t have the types of preexisting health conditions that could make them more vulnerable to the coronavirus, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, or cancer. According to the CDC, 73% of Americans hospitalized with COVID-19 had at least one underlying condition.3
“This may help explain why many children seem to be at lower risk, since they are less likely to have these types of preexisting conditions,” Dr. Ferraro said.
Additionally, public health officials say that smokers have a higher degree of risk for getting seriously ill from the coronavirus. Since children do not smoke, they are less susceptible to lower respiratory tract infections like COVID-19, Dr. Ferraro said.
Children Should Practice Coronavirus Prevention
The coronavirus statistics appear to be in favor of the young, but Dr. Ferraro emphasized that children are not immune to the disease.
“It is still possible for children to contract COVID-19,” she said. “It is therefore important to take precautions and teach children how to protect themselves from COVID-19 infection.”
She advises families to keep their guard up and to teach children good COVID-19 prevention practices. To protect themselves during the coronavirus outbreak, Dr. Ferraro said people of all ages should listen to public health professionals and follow CDC coronavirus prevention guidelines for wearing masks, washing hands, and social distancing.
“Everyone needs to practice social distancing for it to work efficiently,” Dr. Ferraro said. “Seemingly healthy individuals might actually be infected but not exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. The coronavirus is highly contagious. Since young, healthy individuals—which include children—could be carriers of the coronavirus, it is important that they practice social distancing to help more vulnerable populations from being infected.”
Dr. Ferraro has more than 20 years of experience in public health research and has conducted numerous studies on virus outbreaks. A member of the Walden University faculty since 2008, she teaches online courses in epidemiology, biostatistics, and other subjects in Walden’s public health master's and doctoral degree programs. Read more about Dr. Ferraro and her work at www.waldenu.edu/connect/newsroom/spotlight/2020/stopping-an-outbreak.
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