Children are beginning to appear in clinics and doctors’ offices with an unusually high number of coterminous viral infections—especially for the summer months.
At least that’s the pattern that’s emerging from reporting by The Washington Post, The Daily Mail, and other outlets. And experts are beginning to suggest that it might have something to do with children’s immune systems being compromised and weakened by mask-wearing, lockdowns, and other COVID measures.
The surge in cases of colds and flu is something doctors expect in the winter—but certainly not in the summer. But the typical downturn hasn’t materialized, and scientists also seem to be mystified by the disappearance of flu strains that were once common and widespread. In an interview with The Washington Post, Thomas Murray, who is an infection-control expert and associate professor of pediatrics at Yale, reported some unusual data.
In recent weeks, Murray’s team has been seeing children exhibiting an array of seven common viruses—including adenovirus, rhinovirus, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), human metapneumovirus (a respiratory infection more often seen in winter and spring), influenza and parainfluenza, along with the coronavirus. In some cases, the patients exhibited two or more viral infections concurrently.
“That’s not typical for any time of year and certainly not typical in May and June,” Murray said.
Meanwhile, The Daily Mail has unearthed unusual patterns in CDC data on the levels of influenza infections in young children. For one thing, there seems to have been an unusual surge in such infections in late spring, which is essentially the beginning of the summer fallow period for respiratory infections. At least it was in normal times—now the typical disease patterns appear to have been reshuffled.
Another tentative pattern involves the rhinovirus, the culprit behind the common cold. Usually, it’s not severe enough for hospitalizations, but that seems to be changing. It’s not the only change, either—respiratory syncytial virus and influenza both typically recede in the warmer months, but this year that doesn’t appear to be the case. And, inexplicably, the so-called “Yamagata” flu strain has been on the lam since early 2020—right when COVID-19 made its global debut. Is it extinct, or has it merely gone dormant?
“It’s a massive natural experiment,” Michael Mina, an epidemiologist and chief science officer at eMed, told The Washington Post. He also explained that people’s reduced exposure to formerly widespread and very common respiratory viruses amidst the pandemic measures—such as lockdowns, social distancing, and mask-wearing—have weakened immune responses and heightened vulnerability to infection. This, in turn, seems to have lessened the effects of seasonality on disease patterns.
“When you have a lot of people who don’t have immunity, the impact of the season is less. It’s like free rein,” he observed.
The new patterns are also forcing a rethink when it comes to the treatment of the respiratory syncytial virus, which can cause deadly lung infections in young children. The treatment regimen requires the use of a monoclonal antibody typically only available in the winter months, between November and February. Now clinics and hospitals may have to stock these treatments out of season.
Either way, doctors and medical scientists are reportedly carefully observing the new disease patterns, and are trying to unravel in what way the unprecedented lockdowns of 2020-2021 may have affected—negatively or otherwise—the development of immune systems in both children and adults.
For the time being, human society seems to be the subject of two immense experiments—a social one, overseen by world leaders and medical experts, and a natural one, in which formerly harmless diseases test the limits of our weakened immune systems. It remains to be seen which one is more destructive.
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