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First findings from world’s largest study on long Covid in children

unwell teenager

Up to one in seven of children and young people who caught Covid-19 may have symptoms linked to the virus 15 weeks later, suggest preliminary findings from the world’s largest study on long Covid in children.

The research team sent questionnaires to about 220,000 young people in England and received 17,000 responses. Results drew on the responses of nearly 7,000 of those who were tested between January and March. In later studies, the researchers will analyse survey results at six months, a year and two years from the time of the child’s PCR test.

The Children and young people with Long Covid (CLoCk) study is led by UCL and Public Health England and involves collaboration with researchers at several UK institutions including King’s College London, Public Health England, Great Ormond Street Hospital and University College London Hospitals (UCLH).

For the study, published on the preprint site Research Square and funded by NIHR and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), researchers surveyed 3,065 11 to 17-year-olds in England who had positive PCR test results as well as a matched control group of 3,739 11 to 17-year-olds who tested negative over the same period.

They found that, when surveyed at an average of 15 weeks after their test, 14% more young people in the test positive group had three or more symptoms of ill health, including unusual tiredness and headaches, than those in the test negative group, while 7% (one in 14) had five or more symptoms.

The data suggests that, over seven months, at least 4,000 and possibly 32,000 teenagers of the total population of 11 to 17-year-olds who tested positive in England may have been suffering three or more symptoms tied to Covid-19, 12 weeks after infection. These figures are over and above the background symptom levels of teenagers in the control group who tested negative.

Lead author Professor Sir Terence Stephenson (UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health) said: “There is consistent evidence that some teenagers will have persisting symptoms after testing positive for SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19). Our study supports this evidence, with headaches and unusual tiredness the most common complaints.”

Professor Stephenson added: “The difference between the positive and negative groups is greater if we look at multiple symptoms, with those who had a positive test twice as likely to report three or more symptoms 15 weeks later. This suggests that number of symptoms should be considered when clinicians seek to define long Covid in children.”

Led by UCL and Public Health England, the landmark study is the largest study to date of children and young people in the world. It relied on PCR lab proven results and used a Covid-negative comparison (control) group, as well as recruiting widely, from across England.

The study shows the importance of having a comparison group so that long-lasting Covid-19 symptoms are not confused with non-Covid-related ill health. A follow-up of the children for up to two years will also give insight into any long-lasting effects of Covid-19 in teenagers.

Health Minister, Lord Bethell said: “Most people who catch SARS-CoV-2 make a full and quick recovery, but we know some continue to suffer from symptoms for months after being infected. That’s why we are backing vital research like this to help build our understanding of long COVID so we can protect adults and children from its effects.

“We want the UK to be a world leader in tackling long COVID and we will continue to support those suffering the long-term effects of the virus.”

Professor Lucy Chappell, Chief Executive of the NIHR, said: “Parents and young people are understandably concerned about the risk of long-term symptoms following SARS-CoV-2 infection.

“This large study, part of NIHR’s £50 million investment into long COVID research, helps to quantify that risk and indicates that multiple ongoing symptoms may be a useful measure for long COVID.”

The study is important as it will inform our understanding of the long-term impacts of Covid-19 on the health of children and young people. The more we can learn about how people react to Covid-19 in both the short and longer term, the better equipped we will be to help those affected.

The NHS in England invested £134 million to establish over 80 long Covid clinics in each local health area and in July, announced 15 new paediatric hubs to help treat young people with the condition.