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Coronavirus – Risks for preterm born infants: An interview with Professor Doctor Christoph Bührer

The Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and its distribution is on everyone‘s lips and speculations run high. Especially older people and persons with a pre-existing medical condition appear to be develop a serious illness more often than others (WHO). This might leave parents-to-be, parents of preterm born infants and former preterms worrying. We talked to Professor Doctor Christoph Bührer, Medical Director Department of Neonatology, Charité Berlin about the risks he sees for unborn babies, preterm born infants and preterm born adults.

© Prof. Christoph Bührer

Professor Bührer, can corona virus pass from pregnant woman to her unborn infant?
At present, the most likely mode of transmission in all newborn infants with COVID-19 infection analysed so far is postnatal transmission. No case of intrauterine transmission has been documented. This do not exclude the possibility that transmission before birth may happen, but it is very unlikely.

What kind of risk of corona infection do you see for preterm born infants?
Infants, as compared to adults, have a much lower risk of getting infected with the new corona virus. Moreover, they are also less likely to develop symptoms. In China, only 9 infants less than 1 year of age were identified by early February 2020, at a time when the total number of infected people had already risen to more than 50,000. None of the infants with a positive test result was seriously ill, none of them was admitted to an intensive care unit. At present, there is no specific data for preterm infants available. As manuscripts on the epidemiology of COVID-19 are published at high speed, there is reason to assume that infants, both term and preterm, are just not the prime target of this virus. If a COVID-19 infection turns into pneumonia, preterm infants with bronchopulmonary dysplasia should be expected develop more serious symptoms (such as shortness of breath, increased rates of breathing, or poor oxygenation) than those with healthy lungs, so they would be more likely to be tested for COVID-19. However, there is lack of reports on COVID-19 ravaging preterm infants which is rather reassuring.

Is the risk of an infection higher for a preterm born adult?
If a COVID-19 infection turns into pneumonia, anybody with a chronic lung condition (such asthma, cystic fibrosis, or former preterm infants who had bronchopulmonary dysplasia) will have more trouble coping with the disease. These people may need more medical help than somebody who is completely healthy. As COVID-19 and flu (notably H1N1) have a similar attack rates, adults and adolescents born very preterm are advised to get vaccinated against influenza.

We would like to thank Prof Bührer for taking time to give this interview.

Note: To avoid infection with COVID-19 it is advisable to frequently wash your hands. If you want to promote handwashing in your organisation, find useful materials such as posters, flyers and colouring pictures at: www.efcni.org/activities/campaigns/wash-your-hands/