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What El Paso parents should know about a rare illness in children tied to COVID-19

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While El Paso hasn’t had any reported cases of a rare multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children associated with COVID-19, health experts advise parents to be on the lookout for related symptoms.

Dr. Gilbert Handal, a longtime El Paso pediatrician certified in infectious diseases and critical care and professor of pediatrics at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso, said the syndrome is very infrequent, but can pose serious health risks if not treated immediately.

Dr. Gilbert Handal

Children that have had COVID-19, or may have been exposed to it may not show symptoms of the virus, are susceptible to the multisystem inflammatory syndrome, or MIS-C, three or four weeks after being infected or exposed, he said.

“The child living in the household may not present symptoms (of COVID-19) at all, but he may have been infected,” Handal said. “Number one; they have to suspect that the child may have the syndrome if there’s been somebody in the household that had COVID.”

According to El Paso’s Department of Public Health, 379 El Pasoans under age 20 have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Wednesday, representing about 9.5 percent of all cases in the county.

Handal said symptoms of MIS-C include rashes, inflammation around the tips of the fingers, a strawberry tongue wherein the tongue looks bright red and very large, red eyes without secretions and fever. Children also can become dehydrated very quickly and have diarrhea, he said. The symptoms also mirror those of Kawasaki disease, an acute febrile illness that primarily affects children younger than 5 years old.

“If they are displaying those symptoms then they should be taken to the ER and they need to be treated very quickly,” Handal said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is unknown what causes the syndrome in children and anyone under the age of 21, but the condition causes different body parts to become inflamed, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, brain, skin, eyes, or gastrointestinal organs.

Cases of MIS-C, according to the CDC, were first reported in Europe in April with cases then appearing in May in the United States. Handal said there have not been any cases in El Paso, but there have been some reported cases in Houston.

Handal said little is known about how both COVID-19 and MIS-C are contracted by children.

“This is a virus that has a behavior that’s different than any other infection we’ve had before,” Handal said.

Handal said part of the problem with understanding how the virus and syndrome affect children is that there has not been enough testing done for the younger population.

Handal is trying to get funding to do “focus testing” on children in cooperation with local school districts to gain a better understanding of how the virus impacts them and to better understand whether children transmit the virus. 

If the research is conducted in El Paso it could be disseminated around the country and world, Handal said.

The CDC has also urged health-care providers to share information with local, state and territorial health departments regarding any potential cases to learn more about the syndrome.

The Centers for Disease Control has a guide for parents who suspect their child may have MIS-C symptoms.

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Elida S. Perez

Elida S. Perez is a longtime community and investigative reporter. Her experience includes work as city government watchdog reporter for the El Paso Times, investigative reporter for El Paso Newspaper Tree and communities reporter with the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal.

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