Public health measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 led to a substantial decrease in children being hospitalised for infections last year, a new study has found and continuing these behaviours may help prevent severe respiratory conditions post-pandemic.
The research led by the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) and the Victorian Department of Health and published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, highlights the role of non-drug interventions such as good hand hygiene and physical distancing in reducing the spread of infectious diseases.
With an unseasonal rise in respiratory conditions among children earlier this year following the lifting of stringent lockdowns, the researchers suggested the simple public health measures, that were so effective against COVID-19, were likely to be effective against all types of infection post-pandemic.
The study reviewed hospitalisation data for those aged under 18 years in Victoria from 2015 to October 3, 2020.
It found a 65 per cent reduction in infection-related hospitalisations among children in the seven months following the introduction of pandemic infection control strategies last year compared with the prior five years.
Hospitalisation rates decreased by 66 per cent for children under five years, and by 40 per cent for children aged 10-17 years. The greatest reductions were seen for lower respiratory infections, which declined by 85 per cent.
Victorian Department of Health researcher Isobel Todd said the various strategies implemented to control COVID-19 had limited the spread of other infectious diseases and lessened the burden on the healthcare system.
“Enhanced hand hygiene, physical distancing, school and business closures, and restrictions to travel and social gatherings collectively resulted in a drastic decline in infection-associated hospitalisations in children,” she said.
“Supporting parents of children with symptomatic infection to keep them home from school or childcare when ill, increasing immunisation rates for seasonal influenza and reducing air pollution could also considerably reduce the burden.”
Study co-senior author MCRI Professor David Burgner said the findings also suggested that COVID-19 infection control measures, especially when respiratory illnesses were at their peak, could have a huge impact on many respiratory conditions in younger children.
Emergency departments across Victoria have experienced a rise in children presenting with respiratory conditions including respiratory syncytial virus, pneumonia and bronchiolitis over recent months.
“A number of factors could be contributing to the jump in cases, such as the easing of physical distancing and public gathering restrictions, as well as the potential waning of herd immunity due to children not being as exposed to respiratory infections in the community during lockdowns last year,” he said.
Study co-senior author Doherty Institute Senior Epidemiologist Associate Professor Sheena Sullivan said “evidence that has emerged since this study was done indicated that some viruses have since rebounded with the lifting of restrictions. Of note, respiratory syncitail virus circulation rebounded during the summer. It is unclear what this might mean for other common respiraoty viruses, such as influenza.”
Researchers from the University of Melbourne also contributed to the study.
Publication: Isobel Todd, Jessica E. Miller, Stacey Rowe, David P. Burgner and Sheena G. Sullivan. ‘Changes in infection-related hospitalisations in children following pandemic restrictions: an interrupted time-series analysis of total population data,’ International Journal of Epidemiology. DOI: 10.1093/ije/dyab101
Available for interview:
Professor David Burgner, MCRI Group Leader, Inflammatory Origins
Associate Professor Sheena Sullivan, Senior Epidemiologist, WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza and the Doherty Institute
MCRI communications specialist
+613 9936 6211/ 0403 664 416
The Murdoch Children's Research Institute (MCRI) is the largest child health research institute in Australia committed to making discoveries and developing treatments to improve child and adolescent health in Australia and around the world. They are pioneering new treatments, trialling better vaccines and improving ways of diagnosing and helping sick babies, children and adolescents. It is one of the only research institutes in Australia to offer genetic testing to find answers for families of children with previously undiagnosed conditions.
The WHO Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza is supported by the Australian Government Department of Health. Jessica Miller is supported by the DHB Foundation. David Burgner is supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council.