State tracking mystery childhood illness

Dr. Vandana Madhavan

BOSTON — State health officials are watching for symptoms of a new disease in children that has been linked to the COVID-19 virus, with more than a dozen cases already reported in Massachusetts.

As of Tuesday, the state Department of Public Health said hospitals and health care centers had reported 17 suspected cases of pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome. That was nearly double the count as of last Thursday.

State health officials last week issued an advisory to health care providers requiring screening and mandatory reporting of suspected cases.

Health officials say the syndrome is rare, and most of those infected develop mild illnesses. But others have required hospitalization and several children have died in the United Kingdom — where the syndrome was first detected — and hard-hit New York state, epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S.

Symptoms of the new illness are similar to Kawasaki disease, which causes fever, rash, swelling of hands and feet, and inflammation of the mouth, lips and throat, among other symptoms. It also has symptoms similar to toxic shock syndrome, which can be fatal.

The medical community is still trying to figure out what is causing the mystery illness, how to test for it, and how many children might be infected.

"We have this new syndrome, and we've given it a name, but we're all still learning what it is," said Dr. Vandana Madhavan, medical director of the pediatric infectious disease program at Massachusetts General Hospital. "We don't even have a clear way of testing to determine who might be a suspected case."

Parents of children who experience symptoms should consult with their family doctor or a pediatrician, but not get deeply concerned, Madhaven said.

"While it's important for DPH to be identifying children who may have it, and to track and learn about it, it's still extremely rare," she said. "If a child has a fever or a rash, it's much more likely to be a more common viral illness than COVID-19 or PMIS."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there is "limited information" about the new illness, and it's not clear yet if adults have been affected.

A panel of experts at Boston Children’s Hospital pointed out during a recent video conference that not all children with the illness tested positive for COVID-19.

Experts also say many children infected with the coronavirus don't have symptoms, which makes it difficult to detect who might be at risk for the new illness.

Massachusetts remains a national hotspot for COVID-19, with 87,052 cases as of Monday and 5,862 deaths.

More than 3,500 of those who've tested positive for COVID-19 were age 19 or younger, and only about 60 of those have been hospitalized, according to the Department of Public Health.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at


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