Amid the spread of the coronavirus and even greater fears of the disease, age is emerging as a strong predictor of whether those who are infected with the virus will sicken or shrug it off.
“This is one of the unusual findings and curveballs that this virus keeps throwing at us,” Dr. Frank Esper, a pediatric infectious diseases specialist at Cleveland Clinic Children’s, told NBC News. “Normal coronaviruses seem to affect children and adults equally, but this one, for whatever reason, certainly skews more to the adult population.”
Statistics bear that out. In Italy, which has been hit hard by the virus, the vast majority of the 79 deaths occurred in individuals between the ages of 63 and 95, according to The Guardian.
“A very small proportion of those aged under 19 years have developed severe (2.5%) or critical disease (0.2%),” WHO added.
Dr. Vanessa Raabe, an assistant professor of pediatric and adult infectious diseases at New York University, said adult immune systems weaken with age.
“We’ve seen similar patterns for other diseases — chickenpox, for example. Adults who get it tend to get much more severe cases than children,” she told NBC.
Dr. Buddy Creech, an associate professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, said there are theories but no facts to explain why children are not becoming sick from the new virus
“Kids with this novel coronavirus, maybe they are responding like they would any other coronavirus, where they get a little runny nose, a little cough, or very mild symptoms, because they have seen coronavirus before, and maybe that provides them a little more protection,” he told NBC, adding, “We simply do not understand why kids have been spared.”
Children can still be carriers of the virus, experts said.
“The virus seems to be transmitted just fine, and it still appears that younger kids under 10 to 15 years of age simply aren’t getting disease, or if they are, they’re not getting too many symptoms,” Creech said.
Esper said increased testing in the U.S. will uncover more cases, but cautioned parents against thinking their children are bulletproof.
“Right now, we unfortunately just can’t tell you exactly why kids are faring better. What’s their secret to their success? We’re just happy they do have success against this particular virus,” Esper said. “But that doesn’t mean your child or any other child is not going to get sick, and it doesn’t mean they can’t get infected and spread the infection to other people who can get more sick.”
Pamela Kahn, president of the California School Nurses Organization, said the lack of cases is a factor to consider as schools weigh closing to slow the spread of the disease.
“In my head and in my heart, I don’t think this virus is hitting kids, but I wouldn’t be blasé and tell parents not to worry,” Kahn told USA Today.
Esper said schools need to consider all the aspects of closing.
“Just because we haven’t seen that childhood disease, doesn’t mean we want to trust our luck and roll the dice with it,” he said. “And also, it’s not just the children in the schools, but there are also adults that may be more at risk.”
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.