GP’s article overstates the number of Covid-19 deaths in children

An opinion article in the British Journal of General Practice (BJGP) which claims “we’ve lost at least 133 children to Covid in the UK so far” has been shared on Facebook, and shared widely on Twitter, including by the Independent SAGE members Dr Kit Yates and Dr Zubaida Haque.

A child’s death is a tragedy in any circumstances, but this figure includes some people who were 18 or older when they died, as well as some whose underlying cause of death was not Covid-19.

Using the best alternative data available, covering deaths due to Covid in people aged under 18 in England and Wales, the correct figure is 50—though this figure only counts deaths registered to the end of December 2021, rather than those recorded until late last month.

Deaths in children due to Covid have sadly been higher in recent months than at any previous stage of the pandemic, but they remain extremely rare. There were eight deaths due to Covid in under-18s in England and Wales in December 2021, making it the most deadly month of the pandemic so far for children.

Why 133 deaths isn’t right

The opinion article in the BJGP was written by Dr Louise Hyde, a GP. It said: “Children are now dying of Covid regularly, at a rate of about 2 or 3 per week. In fact, we’ve lost at least 133 children to Covid in the UK so far.”

In a comment at the bottom of the article, a reader explained that this figure had been reached by adding together the total number of deaths in England within 28 days of a positive Covid test among people aged under 20. And Dr Hyde has confirmed to Full Fact that this was the method she used.

This method does produce a total of 133 deaths in England up to 29 January 2021, but there are two problems with calculating the total in this way.

Firstly, it includes 18- and 19-year-olds, who would not be defined as children by the General Medical Council. (It also includes 16- and 17-year-olds, who by some other medical definitions are not children either.)

Secondly, it counts all deaths within 28 days of a positive Covid test, which may include some that were not caused by the disease itself.

Death certificate data is better

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) publishes regular reports on the number of deaths due to Covid in people of different ages. This means that Covid was listed as the underlying cause on their death certificates by a doctor who was familiar with the case.

As we’ve said, the latest data for England and Wales shows that 50 people aged under 18 died of Covid where the death was registered by the end of December 2021. The figure for people aged under 20 was 71 deaths. For people under 16 it was 39 deaths.

We’ve not been able to find equivalent data for Scotland and Northern Ireland, but those two nations make up about 11% of the UK population, so they might contribute to a slightly higher figure for the whole country.

Eight deaths among people under-18 in December means that the rate was roughly two per week in that month, as the article suggested.

Dr Hyde told us: “The number I used was to the best of my knowledge at the time of writing, without having seen the death certificate data.” She also said: “I’d argue that to most parents their 19-year-old is still very much their ‘child’.”

Photo by Katie Harp on Unsplash

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