Study: Respiratory viruses tend to infect young children before adults

PROVIDENCE – Some types of respiratory viruses, including human coronaviruses, may infect young children before moving to older people, according to a recently published study co-authored by a Rhode Island Hospital epidemiologist.

Dr. Leonard A. Mermel, medical director of epidemiology and infection control at Rhode Island Hospital, along with Dr. Young June Choe and Dr. Michael A. Smit, both of whom worked at Rhode Island Hospital at the time of the study, examined more than 6,700 respiratory virus cases in Rhode Island from 2012 through 2016.

The doctors concluded that respiratory viral infections are seasonal, and found that most such infections occur each season first in children up to 4 years old.

Influenza, which first infected people in the 18- to 64-year-old age group, was the sole exception.

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Findings from the study may be relevant to current responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, including decisions on when and how to open child care centers and schools, Mermel said.

“We found that most human respiratory viruses, including human coronaviruses, start in the youngest age groups and then go on to affect older individuals. Thus, as SARS-CoV-2, the cause of COVID-19, continues to circulate and evolve as a human respiratory virus, it too may eventually sequentially affect youngest age groups followed by older people,” he said. “Better understanding this relationship will be important in planning for future community mitigation strategies and the impact of day care and school closures on transmission risk.”

The study was published last week by JAMA Network.

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