Omicron linked to higher hospitalisation rate for babies

A newborn baby infected with Covid-19 receives oxygen at a maternity hospital in Russia. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - Omicron infection has resulted in a higher hospitalisation rate for babies in the UK than seen for previous variants of Covid-19, though most hospital stays were short, researchers said.

Infants under the age of one year old accounted for 42 per cent of children hospitalised during the Omicron wave, compared with 30 per cent in May to mid-December when the Delta variant was prevalent, a UK-wide team of doctors said in data released on Friday (Jan 14).

Outcomes for the hospitalised 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 adds to evidence from the US signalling a rise in child hospitalisations due to Omicron.

However, the UK'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 is a member of the consortium.

The babies spent an average of just under two days in the hospital, he said.

Reassuring data

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 hospitalised 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 is 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 UK Health Security Agency said in a statement.

Overall, the data still shows that Covid-19 poses a very low health risk to children and infants, the agency said.

The hospitalised babies largely had fever, often with a cough. They were healthy, without other medical conditions, the researchers said.

The study did not 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 hospitalisations 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 hospitalisations 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 shows children from more economically deprived areas are far more likely to hospitalised, a discrepancy that has only widened in the Omicron wave, she said.

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