Children in China wearing face masks on April 28, 2020.
Children in China wearing face masks on April 28, 2020.
Photo: Getty Images

Doctors in Europe are warning that they’ve started to see an alarming rise of rare, life-threatening complications among children confirmed or suspected to have covid-19. However, it’s not certain how common these complications are or whether they’re necessarily connected to the novel coronavirus.

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On Tuesday, Reuters reported that health officials in the UK and Italy have been receiving accounts of these cases from local doctors in recent days. Doctors in Spain and Portugal have reportedly also come across these cases, according to a heart specialist interviewed by Reuters. Over the weekend, the Pediatric Intensive Care Society in the UK issued its own similar warning to doctors.

“Over the last three weeks, there has been an apparent rise in the number of children of all ages presenting with a multi-system inflammatory state requiring intensive care across London and also in other regions of the UK,” the society posted on its Twitter account Sunday.

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These complications appear to resemble two rare and similar conditions that can cause widespread damage to the body: toxic shock syndrome and a blood vessel disorder known as Kawasaki disease. Patients have reported abdominal pain and other gastrointestinal symptoms, while some have shown signs of inflammation to the heart or cardiovascular system. Some but not all of these children have tested positive for the virus that causes covid-19, and others have had blood test results that suggest they had a previous infection by the coronavirus, according to the UK Pediatric Intensive Care Society.

Toxic shock syndrome is usually caused by a bacterial infection that produces a build-up of toxins. These toxins can then trigger a massive overreaction by the immune system that attack the body’s organs. Kawasaki disease, on the other hand, is most commonly seen in children under age five and is characterized by swollen arteries throughout the body that can show up as distinctive skin rashes.

These reports don’t stretch plausibility. For one, doctors have documented the risk of similarly massive immune reactions among adult patients with covid-19. And though toxic shock syndrome is most directly linked to infections caused by certain bacteria, risk factors for developing it can include viral infection, too. Doctors have also previously reported a link between Kawasaki disease in children and infection by another seasonal coronavirus known as HCoV–NL63.

However, it’s still too early to declare a conclusive link between these conditions in children and the virus. Right now, the reports seem to be limited to Europe. A representative for the American Academy of Pediatrics told Reuters that it had not received any similar case reports from doctors. Children are still thought to experience relatively much milder cases of covid-19 compared to adults.

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If this connection is real, though, it would only be the latest discovery showing that the symptoms of covid-19 go well beyond fever and a telltale dry cough. In recent months, a loss of smell and taste, prominent skin discoloration of the toes and fingers, and more serious complications like stroke have been linked to the coronavirus.

Science writer at Gizmodo and pug aficionado elsewhere

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