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The Coronavirus pandemic has raised questions about how children who are being treated for cancer respond to the virus and the best ways to protect them from infection.
Paediatric cancer centres from around the world, including the Cancer Centre for Children at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, joined together to conduct research to help answer these questions with the results published recently in the European Journal of Cancer.
A key finding of the research was that very few children with cancer become infected with the Coronavirus and show signs of COVID-19 illness despite the fact that they are receiving chemotherapy and other types of anticancer treatments. This is the case, even in countries with a high incidence of COVID-19. Most children were only mildly affected or asymptomatic (infected but not showing symptoms). So, the risk of severe disease with COVID-19 in children whose immune system is severely compromised appears to be very low.
An important result of this research is the recommendation that preventative measures for the Coronavirus should not delay children’s treatment for cancer.
The results of this research showed:
Level of risk
Evidence suggests children with cancer have a low rate of identified infection, similar to children in the general population, although there is still some uncertainty. Out of about 10,000 patients, 200 were tested, and only nine had COVID-19. Eight of the nine children had asymptomatic to mild disease, and one was newly diagnosed. The risk of severe disease with COVID-19 in children whose immune system is severely compromised is still unknown.
Despite having strong chemotherapy medication children with cancer can get infected by the Coronavirus although the number identified was low and the infection was mild.
General prevention measures include social distancing, quarantine for the infected and contacts, clean hands and surfaces, and cautious checking for symptoms. In hospitals precautions are always taken to protect patients, families and staff from infection, with the degree and type varying to meet patient needs (and in different countries and hospitals).
Treatment of the children with COVID-19 varied, according to their needs, and information was shared between centres and countries to build up knowledge about best practices.
A world first
This is the first survey of paediatric cancer centres, including our own here at The Children’s Hospital at Westmead, in countries affected by the Coronavirus making its results highly significant in understanding how the virus might affect children with cancer.
Even though children in the study had surprisingly few Coronavirus infections at this stage, and they were mild, recommended precautions should be taken for children being treated for cancer.