From the Journals

Novel inflammatory syndrome in children possibly linked to COVID-19


A novel clinical presentation in children involving symptoms seen with atypical Kawasaki disease and toxic shock syndrome may be linked to COVID-19 infection, according to reports from National Health Service England, The Lancet, and the New York City health department.

This transmission electron microscope image shows SARS-CoV-2—also known as 2019-nCoV, the virus that causes COVID-19. isolated from a patient in the U.S., emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab. Courtesy NIAID-RML

Fifteen children in New York City hospitals have presented with the condition, provisionally called pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome, between April 17 and May 1, according to a health alert from New York City health department deputy commissioner Demetre C. Daskalakis, MD, MPH, on May 4. On May 5, the New York state department of health released a health advisory that 64 suspected cases had been reported in children in New York state hospitals, including New York City.

The New York City reports follow a case study published April 7 in Hospital Pediatrics about the presentation. There also was a statement from the U.K.’s Paediatric Intensive Care Society (PICS) on April 27 that noted “blood parameters consistent with severe COVID-19 in children” as well as abdominal pain, gastrointestinal symptoms, and cardiac inflammation.

“Whilst it is too early to say with confidence, features appear to include high CRP [C-reactive protein], high [erythrocyte sedimentation rate] and high ferritin,” the PICS release stated. The cardiac inflammation consists of “myocarditis with raised troponin and [prohormone brain natriuretic peptide],” according to the PICS statement. “Some have an appearance of their coronary arteries in keeping with Kawasaki disease.”

The initial 15 New York City patients reportedly all had “subjective or measured fever, and more than half reported rash, abdominal pain, vomiting, or diarrhea,” but fewer than half had respiratory symptoms.

The case study described a 6-month-old infant who was admitted and diagnosed with classic Kawasaki disease, who also tested positive for COVID-19 with fever and mild respiratory symptoms, reported Veena G. Jones, MD, a pediatric hospitalist in Palo Alto, Calif., and associates.

While many of the U.K. children presenting with the symptoms had a positive polymerase chain reaction tests for infection from SARS-CoV-2, some also had a negative test. Polymerase chain reaction testing in New York City was positive for 4 children and negative for 11 children, but 6 of the those who tested negative had positive serology tests, potentially pointing to postinfection sequelae.

At press time, more cases were reported from the United Kingdom in The Lancet. In London, eight children with hyperinflammatory shock, showing features similar to atypical Kawasaki disease, Kawasaki disease shock syndrome, or toxic shock syndrome, presented within 10 days to Evelina London Children’s Hospital Paediatric ICU, Shelley Riphagen, MBChB, and colleagues revealed.

Clinically, their presentations were similar, with persistent fever, rash, conjunctivitis, peripheral edema, extremity pain, and gastrointestinal symptoms. They all developed warm vasoplegic shock that did not respond to volume resuscitation; noradrenaline and milrinone were administered for hemodynamic support. Seven of the children needed mechanical ventilation for cardiovascular stabilization, although most of them had no significant respiratory involvement.

Of note was development of small pleural, pericardial, and ascitic effusion – “suggestive of a diffuse inflammatory process,” Dr. Riphagen and associates wrote. None of the children initially was positive for SARS-CoV-2; laboratory evidence of infection or inflammation included “elevated concentrations of CRP, procalcitonin, ferritin, triglycerides or d-dimers.”

“A common echocardiographic finding was echobright coronary vessels,” they wrote. “One child developed arrhythmia with refractory shock, requiring extracorporeal life support, and died from a large cerebrovascular infarct.”

As the article went to press, the doctors in that same ICU had seen more than 20 children with similar clinical presentations, Dr. Riphagen and associates reported, and the first 10 tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 antibody, including the 8 described above.

“Most of the children appear to have antibodies to the novel coronavirus, even when they do not have virus detectable in their nose,” said Audrey John, MD, PhD, chief of the division of pediatric infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where clinicians have seen several cases similar to those described by NHS England and the New York City health department. “This suggests that these symptoms are ‘postinfectious,’ likely due to an abnormal immune response that happens after viral infection.”

She noted at the time of her interview, however, that fewer than 100 U.S. pediatric cases appear to have been reported.

“While our understanding is evolving, given the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic, this suggests that this kind of severe disease in children is very rare indeed,” Dr. John said. “Because this syndrome is so newly described, we have to continue to be cautious in attributing this syndrome to COVID-19, as there are many other diseases that look quite similar.”

She advised clinicians to be “wary of attributing fever/rash/shock to this syndrome, as the differential is broad, and we do not want to fail to recognize and treat true toxic shock or tick-borne disease.”

Dawn Nolt, MD, MPH, an associate professor of pediatrics in infectious diseases at Oregon Health & Science University’s Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, Portland, also underscored the need to avoid drawing conclusions too quickly.

“At this time, there is no causality established between SARS-COV-2 and these inflammatory syndromes other than a temporal association,” said Dr. Nolt, whose hospital has not yet seen any of these cases. “If there is a link, then the symptoms may be from a ‘direct hit’ of the virus on tissues, or from an overly exuberant immune response.”

None of the initial 15 New York City children died, although 5 needed mechanical ventilation and over half needed blood pressure support. The one child in London died from a large cerebrovascular infarct.

If the cases are connected to COVID-19, one explanation for the presentation may be related to the leading hypothesis “that SARS-CoV-2 may stimulate the immune system in such a way to promote vasculitis,” Dr. Nolt said in an interview.

“It is unusual that this particular constellation was not reported from the known pediatric cases out of China, where the COVID-19 pandemic originated,” Dr. Nolt said. “If there is a link between SARS-CoV-2 and these inflammatory syndromes, this may have resulted from genetic/host differences, changes in the SARS-CoV-2 virus, or other factors yet to be determined.”

The New York City bulletin recommended that clinicians immediately refer children presenting with the described symptoms to a specialist in pediatric infectious disease, rheumatology, or critical care.

“Early diagnosis and treatment of patients meeting full or partial criteria for Kawasaki disease is critical to preventing end-organ damage and other long-term complications,” the bulletin stated. It recommended aspirin and intravenous immunoglobulin for those who met Kawasaki criteria.

Dr. John said that children with the presentation appear to be responding well to intravenous immunoglobulin and/or steroids. She further emphasized that virtually all pediatric patients recover from COVID-19.

“Physicians should advise families to bring their children and teens back in for evaluation if they develop new fever, rash, or abdominal pain and diarrhea,” Dr. John said. “Families should not be afraid to seek care when their kids are sick. Our pediatric hospitals and EDs are open for business and working hard to protect staff and patients.”

A Kawasaki syndrome diagnosis requires at least 5 days of a fever at 101-104° F or higher along with four of the following five symptoms: rash over the torso; redness and swelling on palms and soles of the feet with later skin peeling; bloodshot, light-sensitive eyes; swollen lymph glands in the neck; and irritation and inflammation of the mouth, lips and throat, sometimes with “strawberry” tongue, according to the American Heart Association.

A press release from the AHA noted that Kawasaki disease is the most common cause of acquired heart disease in developed countries, but the condition remains rare.

Kawasaki disease’s etiology is unknown, but “some evidence suggests an infectious trigger, with winter-spring seasonality of the disease,” wrote the case study authors, noting that past research has linked Kawasaki disease with previous or concurrent infections of rhinovirus/enterovirus, parainfluenza, respiratory syncytial virus, influenza, adenovirus, and the four common human coronavirus strains.

“We have to remember that our experience with this pandemic is less than 12 months,” Dr. Nolt said. “We are still accumulating information, and any additional manifestations, particularly severe ones, adds to our ability to more quickly detect and treat children.”

Dr. Nolt and Dr. John had no disclosures.

SOURCES: Jones VG et al. Hosp Pediatr. 2020 Apr 7. doi: 10.1542/hpeds.2020-0123; Riphagen S et al. Lancet. 2020 May 6. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(20)31094-1.

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