Pandemic brought ‘dramatic’ fall in English hospital admissions for childhood infections

According to the first major study of its kind, hospital admissions for common childhood infections in England dropped by as much as 94% during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Doctors have anecdotally reported that Covid measures inadvertently led to children being better protected against other illnesses.

A large study by the University of Oxford has shown that the number of hospital admissions for non-covid infections fell dramatically in the year after March 2020.

There were substantial and sustained reductions in admissions for common and severe childhood infections, most likely due to social distancing measures, school and workplace closings, and travel restrictions. The use of face masks, enhanced cleaning, and better hand hygiene may have contributed to the reduction.

Tens of thousands fewer children were admitted to the hospital for respiratory conditions as England went into a state of emergency and schools were closed. The findings were published in a journal.

The study found that some children with asthma were protected from life threatening infections. Acute respiratory infections are one of the most common reasons for hospital admission in children.

Many of the measures seen in the first year of Covid in England are unsustainable outside of the pandemic. Mental health has been affected by such measures. The researchers said that the huge fall in admissions meant there should be a further evaluation of interventions that could be continued, especially during winter months, to protect vulnerable children.

It was previously known that child immunisation programmes have been disrupted due to barriers in accessing or administering vaccines. There were reductions in some childhood infections.

In the new study, it was found that the rates of hospital admissions for vaccine preventable childhood infections decreased after the start of the Pandemic. There were fewer deaths within 60 days of hospital admission for infections such as sepsis, meningitis, bronchiolitis, pneumonia, viral wheeze and upper respiratory tract infections.

The researchers looked at hospital admissions for children up to the age of 14 for common and severe childhood infections in England.

They looked at admissions for respiratory infections that include tonsillitis, flu, bronchiolitis, and sepsis. The team looked at the admissions data for vaccine preventable diseases, including the causes of serious illnesses.

The researchers found that there were substantial and sustained reductions in hospital admissions for all but one condition.

The number of admissions to the hospital for flu fell by over a thousand from an average of 5,379 each year before the epidemic to 304 in 2020-21. The average number of admissions for bronchiolitis decreased from 51,655 to 9,423. The number of tonsillitis admissions fell from over 54,000 a year to just over 18,000. Meningitis admissions dropped by almost 50% from an average of 3,917 before the epidemic to 1,964 in 2020-21.

The researchers wrote in The BMJ that the study showed dramatic reductions in hospital admissions for respiratory infections, vaccine preventable in children, and severe infections. Children with potentially life threatening co-morbidities were also protected.

The evaluation of non-pharmacological interventions that could be sustained beyond the pandemic is required to inform policymakers about potential strategies to protect health systems and vulnerable children. As social restrictions evolve, hospital admissions for these infections need to be monitored.