There has been some concern from doctors in China that the new coronavirus might be spread by individuals that don’t exhibit any symptoms of the illness. A recent letter that was published in the New England Journal of Medicine on January 30th appears to back these fears. The letter describes a cluster of infections that appeared in Germany after a woman from Shanghai traveled to Bavaria for business purposes and started having symptoms after getting on the return flight to China four days later, but several individuals in Germany contracted the illness with only one those individuals having direct contact with the infected woman.
Some health officials in Germany are uncertain about the validity of this claim since the woman who was from Shanghai had complained of back pain and a general sense of not feeling well while in Bavaria. Whether or not asymptomatic transmission of the virus occurred in this case doesn’t mean that it can’t happen. Many scientists and public health officials in China are stating that they’re fairly certain asymptomatic transmission is happening there. Besides, as many experts point out, if the first symptoms are common and vague, then trying to figure out who’s infected is about the same as if the person was truly asymptomatic.
Some good news is that despite the ever-increasing number of cases and deaths, the percentage of children being impacted is relatively low. As of right now, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), only 2.5% of individuals under 19 have developed severe disease with only 0.2% of the same group having critical disease. Also, there haven’t been any deaths recorded in children under the age of 9.
Experts are thinking that younger people are being infected, but they’re experiencing mild cases that don’t require treatment at a hospital, which means that it isn’t being recorded. One published case study of a family demonstrates the fact that children are less severely impacted. The study reported that a 10-year-old traveled to Wuhan with his family. Upon returning to Shenzhen, family members, ranging in age from 36 to 66, developed fever, sore throat, diarrhea and pneumonia. However, the child had no outward symptoms, but had signs of viral pneumonia in the lungs.
The concern is that despite not getting overly sick, children who have the virus can spread it to others who could be more severely affected. At this time, there isn’t enough data available to know if this is happening with the new coronavirus. However, this concept isn’t uncommon though. In the 2003 SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in China, 2012 MERS (Middle Eastern respiratory syndrome) outbreak in Saudi Arabia and the 2015 MERS outbreak in South Korea, most children who were infected never had symptoms and those that did often have milder symptoms than adults. Since there weren’t many recorded instants of children being infected, it’s hard to judge if asymptomatic children were passing the viruses to adults. Older known viruses, like chickenpox, are also known to causes mild symptoms in children, but can be deadly for adults.
There could be several explanations for children’s ability to contract the same disease and have milder symptoms than adults. Most children eat well, getting plenty of exercise and are well rested. This is especially when compared to most adults. All of these things help to improve one’s immune system. In addition, children are less likely to have other diseases, like diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease, that adults have. These, and other conditions, weaken the body’s immune system and get rid of infections. Even for healthy individuals, as the body ages, its ability to fight off infections deteriorates, especially after middle age.