A number of children with no underlying health conditions have died from a COVID-19-linked inflammatory syndrome, Health Secretary Matt Hancock revealed today.
Doctors were on Monday issued an alert about a sharp rise of infants being admitted to intensive care with the Kawasaki-like disease.
Officials have refused to say how many British children have been affected by the illness, but at least a dozen have fallen critically unwell.
One child needed to be put on a form of life support after their heart and lungs began to fail. The majority of the patients are thought to be under the age of five.
The illness appears to be a form of toxic shock syndrome, an immune overreaction which causes the body to attack its own organs. Mr Hancock said he was ‘very worried’ by the disease.
He told LBC Radio this morning ‘we have lost some children’ to an illness ‘we think is caused by the coronavirus’.
Mr Hancock said: ‘We put out at the weekend a call across the NHS because some cases of this had been identified and then this call essentially says to doctors in other parts of the country, “Have you seen this condition?” and then they collate the information and find out what’s going on.
‘We have lost some children… There are some children who have died who didn’t have underlying health conditions. It’s a new disease that we think may be caused by coronavirus and the COVID-19 virus.
‘We’re not 100 per cent sure because some of the people who got it hadn’t tested positive, so we’re doing a lot of research now but it is something that we’re worried about.
‘It is rare, although it is very significant for those children who do get it, the number of cases is small.’
Doctors have compared the mysterious complication to toxic shock syndrome and Kawasaki disease which, combined, cause harmful internal swelling, fever and breathing problems – all hallmark signs of COVID-19.
But some of the children needing intensive care have tested negative for the coronavirus, further complicating the diagnosis and raising questions that another pathogen could be behind the condition.
Officials have yet to offer any clarity on what the symptoms are, despite pleas from paediatricians to paint a clearer picture so they can look out for them.
It is not clear how many children have had the inflammatory syndrome, nor how many have died with it. It is also unclear how old the children have been.
However, most of the children affected by the inflammatory syndrome already have Kawasaki disease, an NHS source told The Guardian.
Kawasaki disease is a condition that causes inflammation in the walls of the blood vessels and affects mostly children under five years old.
There are roughly eight cases for every 100,000 children in the UK and statistics show it is fatal in three per cent of cases that go untreated.
The new COVID-19-linked cases are occurring when someone with Kawasaki disease contracts the virus and it produces complications, the source told the newspaper.
Children are not thought to be badly affected by COVID-19 – very few youngsters have died around the world since the pandemic began in December.
Their apparent resilience to the disease has baffled doctors for weeks because they are often ‘super-spreaders’ of viral illnesses such as flu.
But children being seen with this syndrome often suffer from stomach pain, heart inflammation and ‘gastrointestinal symptoms’ – which could include vomiting and diarrhoea.
Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said yesterday is ‘entirely plausible’ this spike is linked to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Speaking at No 10’s press briefing yesterday, he added: ‘Because we know that in adults who of course have much more disease than children do, big problems are caused by an inflammatory process and this looks rather like an inflammatory process, a rather different one.
‘Therefore, given that we have got a new presentation of this at a time with a new disease, the possibility – it is not a definite, we need to look for other causes as well – but the possibility that there is a link is certainly plausible.’
NHS medical director Professor Stephen Powis sent an alert to his experts on Monday, instructing them to drill down into the alarming numbers of children with the syndrome.
According to the alert, which was originally shared with GPs in north London, children affected display signs similar to toxic shock syndrome (TSS), a severe illness associated with infections, and have blood markers in line with severe Covid-19 in children.
The memo, which was sent out by an NHS group in London – thought to be the North Central London CCG – and tweeted by the Paediatric Intensive Care Society, said: ‘The cases have in common overlapping features of toxic shock syndrome and atypical Kawasaki disease with blood parameters consistent with severe COVID-19 in children.’
The alert told GPs to refer children with symptoms including abdominal pain as a ‘matter of urgency’.
The NHS still only lists a temperature and a new cough as the main symptoms of COVID-19, despite the World Health Organization saying it can cause diarrhoea and aches and pains and US officials saying it can cause patients to lose their sense of taste and smell.
If the condition turns out to be common, it could add a new element of danger to the coronavirus outbreak, which so far appears to be sparing children.
Only nine people under the age of 19 have died in England in hospital after testing positive for COVID-19, out of a total of 18,420 reported by yesterday, April 26 – 0.05 per cent.
The deaths include 13-year-old Ismail Mohamed Abdulwahab from Brixton, who passed away at King’s College Hospital in London at the end of March.