Covid-19 has become the eighth most common cause of death among children in the United States, according to a study published Monday.
Children are significantly less likely to die from Covid-19 than any other age group – less than 1% of all deaths since the start of the pandemic have been among those younger than 18, according to federal data. Covid-19 has been the third leading cause of death in the broader population.
But it’s rare for children to die for any reason, the researchers wrote, so the burden of Covid-19 is best understood in the context of other pediatric deaths.
“Pediatric deaths are rare by any measure. It’s something that that we don’t expect to happen and it’s a tragedy in a unique way. It’s a really profound event,” said Dr. Sean O’Leary, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Committee on Infectious Diseases.
“Everyone knows that Covid is the most severe in the elderly and immunocompromised and that it’s less severe in children, but that does not mean it’s a benign disease in children. Just because the numbers are so much lower in children doesn’t mean that they’re not impactful.”
In 2019, the last year before the pandemic, the leading causes of death among children and young adults ages 0 to 19 included perinatal conditions, unintentional injuries, congenital malformations or deformations, assault, suicide, malignant neoplasms, diseases of the heart and influenza and pneumonia.
The researchers’ analysis of data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that there were 821 Covid-19 deaths in this age group during a 12-month period from August 2021 to July 2022. That death rate – about 1 for every 100,000 children ages 0 to 19 – ranks eighth compared with the 2019 data. It ranks fifth among adolescents ages 15 to 19.
Covid-19 deaths displace influenza and pneumonia, becoming the top cause of death caused by any infectious or respiratory disease. It caused “substantially” more deaths than any vaccine-preventable disease historically, the researchers wrote.
According to CDC data, children are less vaccinated against Covid-19 than any other age group in the US. Less than 10% of eligible children have gotten their updated booster shot, and more than 90% of children under 5 are completely unvaccinated.
“If we looked at all those other leading causes of death – whether you’re talking about motor vehicle accidents or childhood cancer – and we said, ‘Gosh, if we had some simple, safe thing we could do to get rid of one of those, wouldn’t we just jump at it?” And we have that with Covid with vaccines,” said O’Leary, who is also a professor of pediatric infectious disease at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Children’s Hospital Colorado.
A CDC survey of blood samples suggest that more than 90% of children have already had Covid-19 at least once.
There is uncertainty about exactly how much risk the virus will continue to pose, O’Leary said, but the potential benefits of vaccination clearly outweigh any potential risks.
“Vaccination clearly is our best option right now,” and the benefits clearly outweigh the risks, he said. “Better safe than sorry.”
The findings of the new study, published in JAMA Network Open, may underestimate the mortality burden of Covid-19 because the analysis focuses on deaths where Covid-19 was an underlying cause of death but not those where it may have been a contributing factor, the researchers wrote. Also, other analyses of excess deaths suggest that Covid-19 deaths have been underreported.
As Covid-19 continues to spread in the US, the researchers say that intervention methods such as vaccination and ventilation will “continue to play an important role in limiting transmission of the virus and mitigating severe disease.”