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Virus's effects on kids unknown

Some children suffer heart, stomach damage, doctor says by Jeannie Roberts | March 7, 2021 at 3:18 a.m.

Whitney and Devin Rodgers were out of the country in early January when they got a frantic call from their home in Baxter County.

Their 4-year-old son, Ollie, was sick. Kim Morrow, Whitney's mother told them Ollie was lethargic and wouldn't eat.

That was a Wednesday. By Saturday, Ollie was rushed from Baxter Regional Medical Center in Mountain Home to Arkansas Children's Hospital in Little Rock.

"He was unresponsive," Whitney said.

At the hospital, Ollie tested positive for covid-19 and for spinal meningitis.

"It was super scary," Whitney said.

As the Rodgerses were flying back from a business trip to Mexico, Whitney pleaded on Facebook for prayers for Ollie.

"We had people praying from all over the country and the world," she said. "His story reached everywhere."

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

Since the pandemic hit the state last March, nearly 47,000 children 17 years old and under in Arkansas have contracted the virus.

That's nearly 14.5% of the state's nearly 324,000 cumulative cases.

Young adults age 18-24 make up for about 42,000 more cases.

Nationally, about 2.5 million children 17 years old and under -- or 11% of about 29 million total cases -- have tested positive for the virus.

After weeks in the hospital, Ollie survived his ordeal and is now under the care of specialists at Children's Hospital monitoring and treating his lingering aftereffects.

No Arkansas children have died directly from covid-19, but some have died from the aftereffects, said Dr. Jessica Snowden, chief of infectious disease at Children's Hospital.

"We're seeing them after they've had covid -- whether they realized they had it, and it has caused problems with their heart, with their stomach," Snowden said.

While research is limited on covid-19's long-term effects in children, a main ailment is Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children, or MIS-C, said Dr. Bala Simon, acting chief medical officer of the Arkansas Department of Health.

And, in children, MIS-C hits the heart hard.

"Covid causes inflammation of the heart muscle, and we're seeing this more on the younger ages than the older ages," Simon said.

Simon said the Health Department has sent guidance to providers around the state that it is vital for children to be screened before participating in organized sports.

Medical providers should screen for increased heart rate and follow up with an EKG, Simon said.

Snowden agreed.

"We want to make sure they're cleared before they go back to sports," Snowden said. "We worry about their heart and the long-term effects."

MIS-C, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is a condition where different body parts -- such as the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes or gastrointestinal organs -- become inflamed after a covid-19 diagnosis.

MIS-C is similar to Kawasaki disease, which primarily affects children, in that both diseases are inflammatory conditions. Kawasaki disease, however, causes swelling in the walls of medium-size arteries throughout the body.

According to the CDC, symptoms of MIS-C include fever, abdominal pain, throwing up, diarrhea, neck pain, rash, bloodshot eyes and feeling extra tired. More severe symptoms include trouble breathing, confusion, inability to wake or stay awake, severe abdominal pain, pain or pressure in the chest that does not go away, and pale-gray or blue skin, lips or nail beds.

Snowden said doctors are seeing MIS-C within a few weeks after the initial covid-19 infection.

"Some kids will have fatigue and body aches after covid, just like we see with other viral illnesses," she said. "We see a wide spectrum of things, and we're still trying to figure out what all happens long-term."

Whitney Rodgers said doctors suspect that Ollie's meningitis was a result of MIS-C.

"One of the thoughts was that covid weakened him enough that the bacteria that causes meningitis got through," she said.

Meningitis is a neurological disease that causes inflammation of the fluid and membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. According to the CDC, such a bacterial or viral infection usually causes the swelling.

Ollie's parents, as well as his grandmother, tested positive for the coronavirus shortly after Ollie was diagnosed. All have recovered.

Ollie is on a daily antibiotic and is improving rapidly. He is being monitored at Arkansas Children's Hospital and requires speech, occupational and physical therapy. His parents have taken his older brother, Dexter, 7, out of school and are teaching him virtually to reduce the threat of outside bacteria entering the home.

"We're so grateful he is a fighter," Whitney said.

On March 2, the National Institute of Health announced a new research effort on how covid-19 affects children, with a focus on the long-term outcomes of MIS-C.

"While much of the devastation wrought by COVID-19 is on older and vulnerable populations, it is affecting children in ways we are just beginning to understand. That's why this research and these networks are so critical," said Dr. Gary Gibbons, director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and co-chair of the NIH initiative.

Arkansas Children's Hospital will be a part of the studies on long-term covid-19 affects in children, Snowden said.

"It's just going to take time and keeping an eye on your heart and making sure everything turns out OK. We don't have a treatment for long-term covid or treatment for symptoms that occur late," Snowden said. "That's why it's so important that we get everybody vaccinated so we can get rid of this. What we're seeing in symptoms, it may be the tip of the iceberg."

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