With fears about the coronavirus spreading as rapidly as the virus itself, scientists are now sharing some findings that might offer some reassurance to parents.
Although approximately 81,000 coronavirus cases have been reported worldwide, reports indicate that only 100 or so are pediatric. Furthermore, a small study, published in JAMA, charted the cases of infants hospitalized with the virus in China. They found only nine who had contracted the illness from a family member. And among those, none developed severe complications from the disease. Instead, they had low-grade fevers, a cough, or other mild respiratory symptoms.
"So far, it appears that more than 80 percent of the infections are pretty mild, no more severe than the common cold," Cody Meissner, an infectious-disease expert and professor of pediatrics at Tufts University School of Medicine, told NPR. "And children appear to have even milder infections than adults."
Researchers haven't pinpointed why babies and kids are largely spared from contracting the virus, known as COVID-19. It's certainly possible that many more kids are infected than have been reported, but they simply don't get sick enough to seek medical treatment or the infection is so minor that children develop no symptoms whatsoever.
New York Times health reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. recently shared his theory on a recent episode of the publication's podcast The Daily:
They simply don't get sick enough to seek medical treatment or the infection is so minor that children develop no symptoms whatsoever.
"Kids have enormous numbers of these mild 'coronaviruses' because that's the typical cold virus," he said. "Kids are the ones who get colds. You go to kindergarten, you come back with a cold. So they may have some immunity from having somewhat similar but mild viruses circulating in the child population whereas all of us who had those viruses as kids, our immunities to those have waned."
Another potential cause for relief? There's no evidence so far that pregnant women – or their unborn babies – suffer severe complications. In a small study published in The Lancet, nine women who had the virus during their third trimester were tracked. They all delivered via C-section and gave birth to infants in relatively good health.
"Infants are born with maternal antibodies," said Sallie Permar, a professor of pediatrics and immunology at Duke University School of Medicine. "So whatever their mother had been exposed to, they may have some protection [against] when they're first born."
This should certainly give parents some relief, but the findings up until this point have been collected from small samples in specific scenarios – further research still needs to be done to fully understand the risks. For instance, in the case of pregnant women, it's unclear if the virus can be passed in earlier stages of pregnancy or through vaginal delivery.
At this point, the coronavirus seems to present the greatest risk to older adults and those with chronic health issues. And although it is swiftly moving from an overseas public health crisis to a global pandemic, when it comes to children's health and safety right now, the more imminent threat in the US is still the current flu season, which infects millions and kills more than 100 children – most of whom were not vaccinated – every year.
As Terri Stillwell, a pediatric infectious-disease physician at the University of Michigan, told NPR: "The influenza season is probably a much riskier thing at this point."