When 13-year-old Sanaya Kukreja (name changed) had fever, her parents had a difficult time persuading her to get an RT-PCR test. “But since we were told children don’t get Covid, we didn’t insist on the test or medicine,” says her mother from Hyderabad, over the phone. The unrelenting fever finally subsided after six days, and the other symptoms disappeared too. However, two weeks later, Sanaya began to feel a sharp pain in her chest. When her parents took her to Hyderabad’s Apollo Hospital, she was diagnosed with MIS-C, or Multi-system Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, a condition in which the vital organs of children get inflamed two to six weeks after recovery from Covid and can be fatal if not treated in time.
Though there is no data to ascertain whether Covid has infected more children in the second wave compared to the first, the figures from states do confirm that the infection has spread among the young. Karnataka, for instance, reported 19,378 cases in children below 10 between March 2020 and September 2020, when the first wave was at its peak. From then on, until May 20 this year, the state has seen 49,257 cases in this age group. As of May 23, of the total 5.56 million Covid cases in Maharashtra, 171,335, or 3.1 per cent, were children under 10. In Delhi, the rise in under-18 cases has prompted some hospitals to set up separate Covid wards and ICUs for children.
“The virus will find those who are susceptible,” says Giridhar Babu, an epidemiologist at the Public Health Foundation of India (PFHI) in Delhi. “Since most of the elderly have been infected or have been vaccinated, the virus will continue to infect those who are not protected. As infections continue, it can target more and more people in the younger age group, including children.”
Doctors confirm that they are seeing a larger number of paediatric Covid cases, but cannot say with certainty if these are due to the earlier or new Covid strain. “The higher numbers need not be due to the new Covid strain alone,” says Dr Jesal Sheth, a senior consultant paediatrician at the Fortis Hospital in Mulund, Mumbai, and a neonatal intensive care specialist. “It could just be due to the fact that children did not follow Covid-appropriate behaviour. There was widespread socialising in January and February 2021; some schools also reopened. Often, kids go to the garden to play or run without following masking and social distancing measures.”
Is Covid more severe in children?
Doctors are still not sure if children go on to develop severe symptoms of Covid. The data so far suggests that a majority of the infected children are asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic. “Children are as susceptible to Covid infection as adults and older individuals but not necessarily to a severe form,” says Dr Shyam Kukreja, senior director and head of the paediatric department at the Max Super Speciality Hospital in Patparganj, Delhi. “It is highly unlikely that the current wave will predominantly or exclusively affect children. The common symptoms may include fever, sore throat, cough; children also complain about feeling tired, although almost 90-95 per cent of infections in children are mild or asymptomatic.” The IAP (Indian Academy of Paediatrics), a body representing over 32,000 paediatricians in the country, has also confirmed that at least 90 per cent of Covid-positive children will have very mild symptoms or none at all. However, experts caution that even 5-10 per cent hospitalisation can overwhelm the system if Covid spreads unchecked.
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