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Massachusetts Hospitals Report Rare Cases of Coronavirus-Related Illness in Children

A mysterious, potentially deadly coronavirus-related illness in children is now reported in Massachusetts.

Boston Children's Hospital and Bay State Medical Center in Springfield have both reporting treating patients with pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome. It's a disorder that was unknown until a few weeks ago.

It's a new, rare complication from the coronavirus where doctors believe that a child's immune system overreacts after fighting the virus, causing inflammation that affects various parts of the body and, in few instances, can be deadly.

"It's as if the immune system is overactive and is causing inflammation in children's bodies," said Dr. Jeffrey Burns, Chief of Critical Care at Boston Children's Hospital. "We're encouraged that the children we have seen have recovered — and recovered well  — and are not in the intensive care unit."

Boston Children's Hospital has treated six children believed to have the syndrome, some of whom required treatment in the intensive care unit. Bay State Medical Center released a statement saying it has seen "a few" children with symptoms of the syndrome.

The main symptoms of pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome are high persistent fever, a rash, lethargy and loss of appetite. Burns said a child with the syndrome would be obviously sick.

"This is not subtle," Burns said. "It will come on gradually but parents will notice that a child is clearly ill."

There are treatments for the syndrome, depending on which parts of the body are affected, Burns said. In some cases it's been described as similar to Kawasaki disease, which causes inflammation of the blood vessels and could potentially affect a patient's heart.

"This is infrequent but we do have treatments for this," Burns said. "In the severe form, where it affects the heart as it does with Kawasaki patients, then we do have treatments for that as well."

The syndrome was first reported in Europe about six weeks ago among children who had symptoms that seemed to overlap with COVID-19. Burns said it's believed that this is a post-viral syndrome that comes on four to six weeks after the peak of the coronavirus in a population. New York has reported dozens of cases of the syndrome, and three children are believed to have died from it.

Burns said Boston Children's Hospital is helping to lead Centers for Disease Control and Prevention research into the syndrome. A Massachusetts Department of Public Health spokesperson said the state is collecting data from hospitals about the occurrence of the virus.

A recent study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics looked at children with COVID-19 who required intensive care treatment. It looked at 48 children in pediatric intensive care units in the U.S. and found that most of the children had preexisting medical conditions and had better hospital outcomes compared to adults.

"Children rarely become critically ill from COVID-19, but a few do," Burns said. "So too with this. It's relatively infrequent, and children by and large are able to get through it, and most do not need to come in to the ICU or need a ventilator, and most can be treated."

Deborah Becker Twitter Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.

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