What is this serious new child illness? Is it connected to coronavirus and could it affect my child?

The NHS has issued an alert to doctors about a serious children's illness that's linked to coronavirus. But how common is it – and what symptoms do parents need to look out for?

covid-19 virus

A small number of children have been struck down with a serious new illness called Paediatric Inflammatory Multi-system Syndrome (PIMS-TS) that an increasing number of experts are linking to coronavirus.

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Some of the affected children have needed intensive care treatment in hospital. And NHS bosses were so concerned about the appearance of this new illness, they sent an alert to all doctors about it, urging them to look out for any children showing the symptoms and send them straight to hospital.

All of this sounds super-scary for any parent, of course – especially when we’ve been told up till now that Covid-19 rarely  affects children seriously. But the experts stress that there’s no need to be alarmed: PIMS-TS is rare and it can be treated.

So how concerned should we really be?

“This NHS alert has generated a huge amount of alarm but it’s really important to get it into perspective,” said Dr Sanjay Patel, a consultant in paediatric infectious diseases and immunology at Southampton Children’s Hospital on BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme. “We’re talking about a tiny number of cases.”

Only a tiny number of children have been affected: in the UK, currently between 75 and 100 in the UK. That's about 0.0007% of the 11.5 million children under 16

Affected children can be treated in hospital once PIMS-TS has been diagnosed – and only a fraction of those affected will need intensive care. As current figures stand (at May 18 2020), 2 children affected by PIMS-TS have died in the UK and US authorities have confirmed that 3 children have died in New York.

What are the symptoms of this new child illness?

The illness itself, which seems to happen a few weeks after having been infected with coronavirus, is described by experts at the Paediatric Intensive Care Society as having a mix of the features of toxic shock syndrome and a rare inflammatory disorder called atypical Kawasaki disease.

Key symptoms appear to be:

  • swollen glands in the neck
  • persistent high fever
  • a widespread sunburn-like rash
  • abdominal pain
  • red eyes
  • dry, cracked lips
  • cold hands and feet

“We think that the biology of the disease somehow involves an unusual immune response to the virus,” Michael Levin, Professor of paediatrics and international child health at Imperial College, London told the BBC.

Can it be successfully treated?

Yes, once identified as this new illness – which the NHS alert is designed to help doctors to do – it can, says Dr Patel, be treated quickly with steroids and other drugs.

Is it connected to coronavirus?

Yes, evidence is increasingly emerging that it is linked to coronavirus. There was some initial doubt because some of the children who have been treated in intensive care did test positive for the virus but others did not – maybe because the virus was already out of their system or because the test itself was faulty.

But doctors in Italy have now reported a clear link between Covid-19 and PIMS-TS in a study that has been published in The Lancet. “Our study provides the first clear evidence of a link between Sars-CoV-2 infection and this inflammatory condition,” Dr Lorenzo D’Antiga, Director of child health at the Papa Giovanni XXIII hospital in Bergamo told The Guardian newspaper. “I have no doubt that Kawasaki disease in these patients is caused by Sars-CoV-2.”

“However,” write the research team in their study, “the Kawasaki-like disease described here remains a rare condition, probably affecting no more than 1 in 1000 children exposed to SARS-CoV-2.”

What should parents do if you’re concerned?

“The advice to parents remains the same,” says Prof Russell Viner, the president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. “Parents should be reassured that children are unlikely to be seriously ill with Covid-19.

“But if you are worried about your child – for whatever reason – contact NHS 111 or your family doctor for urgent advice, or call 999 in an emergency. And if a professional tells you to go to hospital, please go to hospital.”

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