Measures to tackle Covid-19 also led to a “dramatic” fall in hospital admissions for common childhood infections, a new study has found.
There were thousands fewer admissions for meningitis, flu, tonsillitis and pneumonia and other conditions as the nation went into lockdown, schools closed and children’s social contacts significantly reduced.
Some children with pre-existing conditions such as asthma were also “substantially protected” from other infections – which could have potentially been “life-threatening”.
Researchers from the University of Oxford said that measures used to control Covid-19 “can also impact on the transmission of other specific infectious diseases” as they called for more studies to see how children can better be protected in the future.
Their new study, published in The BMJ, examined hospital admissions for children up to the age of 14 for common and severe childhood infections in England between March 2017 and the end of June 2021.
They examined information on admissions for common respiratory infections including tonsillitis, influenza and bronchiolitis, severe invasive infections including sepsis, meningitis and a bone infection called osteomyelitis.
The team also looked at admissions data for vaccine preventable diseases included measles, mumps and several bacterial causes of serious illnesses.
Researchers found “substantial and sustained” reductions in hospital admissions were found for all but one of the 19 conditions studied – admissions for kidney infections did not reduce.
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Meningitis admissions fell by almost 50% from an average of 3,917 before the pandemic to 1,964 in 2020/21.
There was a 94% reduction in admissions for flu from an average of 5,379 each year before the pandemic to 304 in 2020/21.
For bronchiolitis, admissions decreased by more than 80% from an average of 51,655 to 9,423 in 2020/21.
Tonsillitis admissions decreased by 66% from more than 54,000 each year before the pandemic to just over 18,000.
They also found that the number of deaths within 60 days of hospital admission for sepsis, meningitis, bronchiolitis, pneumonia, viral wheeze, and upper respiratory tract infections also decreased, although the researchers note that the proportion of children admitted for pneumonia who died within 60 days increased.
The researchers concluded that the measures used to stem the tide of Covid-19 – social distancing, school closures, and minimal recreational activities as well as reduced travel with its associated reduced air pollution – also reduced admissions for common and severe childhood infections in England.
Other measures such as enhanced cleaning, better hand hygiene, the use of face masks and “improved respiratory etiquette” may have also contributed to the reduction.
While many of the measures are unsustainable going forward, the authors called for further work to see whether any factors could be adapted to help protect vulnerable children.
They highlighted that more recent data indicate that croup and upper respiratory tract infections increased to higher levels than usual after May 2021.
The authors wrote: “Since the onset of the covid-19 pandemic, there have been major reductions in hospital admissions for respiratory, severe invasive, and vaccine preventable infections in children in England.
“The findings indicate the extent to which measures related to the control of covid-19 can also impact on the transmission of other specific infectious diseases in childhood.”
They added that the study has highlighted “that children with severe underlying comorbidities, including extremely preterm infants, those with congenital cardiac disease, and those with asthma have been protected from severe and potentially life threatening infection”.