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Children less likely to get 'long COVID,' but still at risk, study finds

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Children less likely to get 'long COVID,' but still at risk, study finds
A study in New England found fewer than 1 in 10 children who acquire the coronavirus will go on to experience "long COVID," suggesting it is rare for younger patients to experience it. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

Sept. 30 (UPI) -- Fewer than one in 10 children and teens with COVID-19 still has lingering neurological and psychological effects of the virus five months after getting infected, a study based on New England cases found.

Among more than 5,000 children and teens age 5 to 18, just over 7% had neurological or psychological symptoms related to the virus three to five months following their initial positive test, the data showed.

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The most common of these persistent symptoms, dubbed "long COVID," were headache, anxiety, thinking and memory problems and fatigue, the researchers said in the study published online late Wednesday.

"As far as long COVID, our study suggests the risk for children is lower than some prior studies might have suggested, but certainly not zero," study co-author Dr. Roy Perlis told UPI in an email Thursday.

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"I hope we can reassure parents somewhat about the risk of long COVID being low but our results don't change the fact that we already have very good reasons to vaccinate children," said Perlis, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

Although children may be less likely to experience persistent symptoms of the disease, they still can become infected, suffer serious, short-term illness and pass the virus to others, he said.

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The study is a preprint and has not been peer-reviewed.

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Research suggests that long COVID, or symptoms of the virus that persist for weeks or months, is fairly common, affecting up to 75% of adults.

However, a study published Wednesday by JAMA Network Open found that older people and those who suffer more serious illness initially are at higher risk for persistent symptoms.

For this study, Perlis and his colleagues tracked the health of 5,058 children age 5 to 18 with confirmed COVID-19 who were treated in two New England health systems.

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Study participants were assessed monthly, up to five months, after their initial positive virus test, the researchers said.

Just over 2% of participants still experienced headaches and "mood and anxiety" symptoms -- including depression -- between three and five months after their COVID-19 diagnosis.

A similar percentage of respondents continued to have "cognitive symptoms," such as trouble thinking, confusion and memory loss, three to five months after becoming infected.

About 1% of the participants had severe fatigue three to five months after testing positive for COVID-19.

All of these long-term symptoms have been documented in other studies that assessed the health impact of the virus.

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Even with the lower risk for "long COVID" among children, the findings highlight the importance of protecting children from getting infected through vaccinating and other measures, Perlis and his colleagues said.

People age 12 and older are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer-BioNTech, with those 18 and older also eligible for the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

"We already have two very good reasons to vaccinate children -- we want to diminish their risk of getting sick with COVID-19 and we want to diminish their risk of infecting others," Perlis said.

"It's important to remember that children can still become quite ill from COVID-19, and a small number of them can remain sick for many months."

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