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Recognizing a Rare COVID-Related Syndrome in Kids

March 16, 2021

Dr. Christina Gagliardo, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Atlantic Health System

The pandemic has certainly hit adults harder than kids. But a rare illness associated with COVID-19 is on the rise in children who have had the virus -- and it can be fatal. Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, known as MIS-C, is a rare immune response that causes severe inflammation of the body’s vital organs. Symptoms can include a persistent fever, rash, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain and bloodshot eyes. 

As New Jersey loosens its restrictions on schools and businesses, and children continue to wait their turn to get vaccinated, experts are concerned that more children could be at an increased risk for this potentially fatal disease. 

“We think that a COVID-19 infection can set off an excessive immune response that causes inflammation throughout the body that affects multiple organs,” explains Christina Gagliardo, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Atlantic Health System.  “A child with severe MIS-C could be in the hospital for a week or more on a ventilator or ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), which is a machine that does the job of the heart and lungs.” 

Although doctors continue to research the cause of this childhood syndrome that affects the heart, brain, lungs, kidneys, and gastrointestinal system, it is worth noting that the vast majority of children with MIS-C ultimately recover. In fact, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, last updated on March 1, there have been at least 2,617 known cases of MIS-C with 33 known deaths. 

But similar to COVID-19, doctors worry that MIS-C could potentially cause long-term damage to a child’s health -- and unfortunately those answers will take time to reveal themselves. Additionally, in the same way that COVID-19 disproportionately affects Hispanic/Latino and Black communities, CDC data shows that two in every three reported MIS-C cases has occurred in Hispanic/Latino or Black children, likely due to the same environmental and socioeconomic disparities.

 “As with COVID-19, we physicians are getting better at treating MIS-C,” says Gagliardo, “but there are still big unanswered questions like ‘why is this disease affecting mostly children and not adults’?”