Sanford doctors monitor rare COVID-related illness in kids

Some children are hospitalized with complications in heart, lungs and kidneys

Caucasian little boy riding a bicycle wearing a protective mask.

There’s a rare but alarming illness affecting children that doctors believe may be linked to the coronavirus.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls it multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children. The New York Department of Health is investigating 225 reported cases in New York, including three deaths, as of June 25. Other states have reported cases as well, including South Dakota with its first announced this week. According to the South Dakota Department of Health, one person with this condition in the 0-19 age group living in eastern South Dakota has been reported.

Stephanie Hanson, M.D., is the chief of service for Sanford Children’s in the Fargo, North Dakota, region as well as department chair for General Pediatrics and Pediatric Urgent Care.

She weighs in on the illness and the growing number of cases nationwide.

Watch: Dr. Hanson on Sanford Health Facebook Live Q&A, May 11

Kids are hospitalized with widespread inflammatory symptoms which cause issues with the heart, lung and kidneys.

“Although this condition is terrifying and we’re seeing it reported in bigger numbers, it’s exceptionally rare,” Dr. Hanson told Sanford Health News. “A wide majority of kids who are infected with this novel coronavirus do very well. They have mild symptoms and recover completely. I really want families to remember the likelihood of their child having this serious condition is very, very rare.”

Similar to Kawasaki disease

As the CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics develop new information and doctors from leading children’s hospitals learn more from each other, Dr. Hanson says this illness has similarities to the known Kawasaki disease.

“Kawasaki disease is an illness that affects young children, under the age of five, causing widespread inflammation in the blood vessels,” she said. She takes care of patients with Kawasaki disease at Sanford Children’s each year.

Symptoms include prolonged fever, swollen lymph nodes and a rash.

“One of the biggest things we worry about is that it can cause inflammation in arteries that supply the heart, and kids can have some long-term health effects due to that,” she said.

No known cause for illness yet

Most of the children showing symptoms of this new syndrome also have evidence of a previous coronavirus infection.

Related: Black children hit especially hard by COVID-19 inflammatory syndrome

With Kawasaki, Dr. Hanson says, it’s likely some combination of a prior infection — viral or bacterial — and some type of genetic abnormality.

“It’s the combination of those two things that cause the illness,” she said. “And we may find it’s similar in this process that’s being described.”

There may be something genetically putting these kids at risk, she says. Then when they get an infection, their immune system overreacts to it and starts attacking the body.

What we can control

“Preventing infection in the first place is the greatest strategies we have to avoid these more serious outcomes,” she said.

Dr. Hanson says continuing to protect children with masking in public (kids over age 2), social distancing and washing hands with soap are among the best methods of prevention.

This story was originally published May 14, 2020. It was updated June 26, 2020, with news of new cases in Sanford Health communities.

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Posted In Children's, Coronavirus, News

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