KARACHI: One in seven children in Pakistan lost their life after contracting moderate-to-severe Covid-19 — a mortality rate that is many times higher than the countries in the West — said a World Health Organisation-sponsored study in Pakistan.

The study, whose findings were disseminated at a seminar in Islamabad on Friday, was led by faculty from Aga Khan University (AKU) who partnered with Karachi’s National Institute of Cardiovascular Diseases (NICVD) and National Institute of Child Health (NICH), Children’s Hospital in Lahore, and Benazir Bhutto Hospital in Rawalpindi.

Researchers recruited over 1,100 children for the study who tested positive for the virus and had been admitted to the hospital for treatment. Data was collected on newborns, babies and adolescents up to between March 2020 and December 2021.

The study found that children with underlying health conditions such as malnutrition, cancer or cardiovascular disease were at a higher risk of dying from Covid-19.

The findings showed that one in five young patients with co-morbidities, or 19.5 per cent, lost their lives. Even children with a previously clean bill of health were at risk with one in eight children in Pakistan dying after contracting the virus.

Similar studies from Western countries have found below one per cent mortality rates in kids

Similar studies from Western countries have found mortality rates in kids from Covid-19 to be under one per cent.

Speakers at the seminar stated that mortality rates in the study were high due to many reasons. Firstly, since participants were recruited from hospitals they were more likely to have moderate to severe forms of Covid-19. Secondly, one-thirds of children in the study had underlying health conditions.

Early findings from the study show the main cause of death from Covid-19 was multi-system inflammatory syndrome. It typically occurs a few weeks after a child is infected with the virus. It causes vital organs such as the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes, or gastrointestinal organs to become inflamed.

Respiratory ailments were another major cause of deadly complications from the virus. Further insights into all causes of death in the study and the most important factors that enabled children to survive are currently being compiled.

‘Not a benign disease’

Researchers noted that most deaths in the study occurred in 2021 rather than 2020 which suggests that later strains of the virus may be more deadly compared to the strain at the start of the outbreak in Pakistan.

While overall mortality from Covid-19 in children is low compared to adults, it is now clear that Covid-19 is not a benign disease in children. The virus is continuously evolving and the medical community should follow the updated treatment guidelines, said AKU’s Dr Qalab Abbas, Dr Fyezah Jehan and Dr Shazia Mohsin, the study’s principal investigators in Pakistan.

The said paediatricians around the country were now suggesting three potentially life-saving changes to treatment guidelines for critically-ill children.

Speakers at the seminar said that the WHO was yet to recommend vaccinating children under the age of 12. However, they also pointed out that this study’s results add to the body of evidence recommending vaccines for younger children with co-morbidities.

“The majority of child deaths in our study took place between the ages of one and 9,” stated Dr Abbas, Dr Mohsin and Dr Jehan. “As we conduct further analysis from our data and compare it to our partner sites in India, Ethiopia and South Africa, we will be able to provide more specific guidelines on how vaccination policies could be amended.”

The study collected data from over 5,000 children across Pakistan, India, Ethiopia and South Africa.

Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Faisal Sultan was the chief guest at the event.

Published in Dawn, December 11th, 2021

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