Prevention Keep Childhood Diseases Chickenpox at Bay

Diseases Chickenpox at Bay

The disinfecting and hand-washing that became common during the Covid-19 pandemic have also served as powerful tools against a host of childhood ailments such as chickenpox, stomach viruses and strep throat, recent data suggest.

Doctors say that as countries with widespread Covid-19 vaccination, including the U.S., get back to normal, people would be well-advised to keep up some of the practices they have adopted—even if pandemic weariness makes them less than eager to take that advice.

Diseases Chickenpox at Bay
Diseases Chickenpox at Bay

“We’ve seen a dramatic decline in the numbers,” said Rana El Feghaly, a pediatrician and director of clinical services at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. “All the peaks that we expected in the winter of this year, we haven’t seen any of those.”

The virtual disappearance of the flu has been well-documented, with cases down 99% or more in the U.S., Europe and other parts of the Northern Hemisphere over the winter. The U.S. recorded just one child death related to the flu in the 2020-21 season, down from 199 the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What is less widely known—in part because the data are more scattered—is the long list of other viruses and bacteria that have found themselves shut out in the pandemic world.

Chickenpox cases in the U.S. this year have fallen by more than two-thirds from pre-pandemic levels, according to the CDC, with similar numbers in Japan and Europe.

Strep throat cases aren’t counted in real time by the CDC, but a few countries do collect weekly data on the disease, a throat infection caused by bacteria called group A Streptococcus. As of May, cases in Japan and England were both down roughly two-thirds compared with pre-pandemic levels.

Data outside the U.S. show the decline is even steeper for another bug, the rotavirus, a common cause of diarrhea and vomiting in small children that is partly but not fully addressed through vaccines. Some countries such as Japan and Germany update rotavirus counts every week. As of May, Japanese cases of these infections were down 99% compared with the same period in 2019 before any pandemic impact, and German cases were down 95%.

Germany also tracks stomach infections from norovirus, a bug that spreads through contaminated surfaces and causes nausea and diarrhea. The result: down 94% this year compared with 2019.

“This is an unbelievable situation,” said Yoshihiro Hayashi, a pediatrician in suburban Tokyo. He said visits involving stomach bugs, sniffles and coughs have become rare, probably because of measures taken against the coronavirus.

Dr. Hayashi said the abrupt change in what is normally bread-and-butter business for a pediatrician was causing headaches of the financial kind. “I never imagined that I would fall into a situation where I have trouble attracting customers,” he said.

Doctors said they believed that the recent habit of disinfecting surfaces and cleaning hands with soap or alcohol sanitizers was contributing to the precipitous decline in common infectious diseases, although studies suggest these practices are less important to preventing Covid-19 than originally believed.

Strep throat and stomach bugs often spread when children touch an object or eat food that has tiny quantities of bacteria or viruses, so disinfecting and hand-washing are key.

Dr. El Feghaly in Kansas City said she didn’t expect everyone to wear masks as in the worst Covid-19 days but hoped some practices would stick.

“I can foresee how things would move toward a middle ground, where it’s not as strict, but also we continue to do some of the precautions that we know help, like washing your hands and sneezing into your shirt, into your elbow,” she said. “Those types of things, we know they work.”

Dr. Baker said New Zealand, which has recorded 26 Covid-19 deaths, offered a hint of how big the effects of preventive measures can be. Overall mortality in the South Pacific nation last year was down 5%, and he said the main reason probably was fewer deaths from respiratory and other infections.

Some doctors fear the viruses and bacteria that were shut out this year could strike back. Once the coronavirus is brought under control, infectious diseases such as strep throat and chickenpox are poised to come back twice as strong, said Norio Sugaya, a Japanese pediatrician who serves on a World Health Organization influenza committee.

Already there are signs certain viruses are returning as pandemic lockdowns ease and people get weary of preventive measures. In the U.S., respiratory syncytial virus, a usually minor bug that can occasionally get serious in infants and the elderly, has suddenly surged in the past two months after being quiet for a year. U.K. data in recent weeks also show a rise in respiratory infections, even as newly reported Covid-19 cases remain 95% below the peak level.

“To be honest, if people’s behavior returns to what it was before the pandemic, it’s helpful for me,” said Dr. Hayashi, the Tokyo-area pediatrician, referring to his business prospects. With a hopeful note about human nature, he added: “But people would not be that stupid.”

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