Omicron Linked to Higher Hospitalization Rate for Babies
(Bloomberg) -- Omicron infection has resulted in a higher hospitalization rate for babies in the U.K. than seen for previous variants of Covid-19, though most hospital stays were short, researchers said.
Infants under the age of 1 accounted for 42% of children hospitalized during the omicron wave, compared with 30% in May to mid-December when the delta variant was prevalent, a U.K.-wide team of doctors said in data released Friday. Outcomes for the hospitalized babies have been positive, however, with no deaths, less need for oxygen and proportionally fewer intensive-care admissions than during the delta wave.
The data add to evidence from the U.S. signaling a rise in child hospitalizations due to omicron. However, the U.K.’s Coronavirus Clinical Characterisation Consortium said it also fits into what would normally be expected during a busy winter of respiratory infections, and that caution in the treatment of children with fever may account for some of the higher admission rate.
“I completely accept that any hospital admission is a stress for the parents, but these are not particularly sick children,” said Calum Semple, a professor of child health and outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool who’s a member of the consortium. The babies spent an average of just under two days in the hospital, he said.
A National Health Service England analysis of the data was also “extremely reassuring,” said Russell Viner, a professor of child and adolescent health at University College London. Most of the hospitalized children were less than three months old, an age when doctors tend to treat fevers with an abundance of caution. About half of them received no treatment, but were merely observed, he said.
Children’s small upper airways make them more susceptible to some types of respiratory illnesses. There’s also evidence that omicron affects that part of the respiratory tract more than previous variants have, he said.
More investigation is needed before drawing any conclusions about whether omicron causes more severe illness in children, the U.K. Health Security Agency said in a statement. Overall, the data still show that Covid poses a very low health risk to children and infants, the agency said.
The hospitalized babies largely had fever, often with a cough. They were healthy, without other medical conditions, the researchers said. The study didn’t include data on the vaccination status of their mothers.
“For pediatricians, this is absolutely our bread-and-butter kind of work,” Camilla Kingdon, president of the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health, said of the symptoms being observed. “I’m very confident that even if we saw a rise from the current level of activity, we would be able to cope.”
The higher rate of infant hospitalizations probably can’t be explained only by a lack of vaccines for young children or a high spread in communities, because there wasn’t a corresponding jump in hospitalizations for older toddlers who also have no access to a vaccine, said Christina Pagel, a professor of operational research at University College London. She wasn’t involved with the study but reviewed the results.
“We urgently need to understand more about what might be causing this increase,” Pagel said. The data also show children from more economically deprived areas are far more likely to hospitalized, a discrepancy that has only widened in the omicron wave, she said.
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