Adults living with children were at no greater risk of testing positive for Covid-19 than those without even when schools were open last year, according to new research.
The study, which involved more than 300,000 adults, also suggests the risk of testing positive with Covid-19 was actually lower for adults living in a household with a child up to the age of 11 than it was for those without young children.
The risk was lower still for adults who lived in households with two or more children under 11 years old.
Researchers used Scotland-wide data of all NHS Scotland healthcare workers and their household contacts between March and October 2020 to examine what effect living with young children might have on Covid-19 risk.
Scientists believe the findings provide evidence that children may have a protective effect against Covid-19 infection in their households, and said this warrants further study.
The research was led by the University of Glasgow in partnership with Public Health Scotland.
Dr David McAllister of the University of Glasgow, lead author of the study, said: “This study provides new evidence of a potentially interesting protective effect that young children may have on the rest of their household.
“Any protective effect of children on Covid-19 rate and severity in their household contacts would seem likely to involve cross-reactive immunity to endemic coronavirus infections acquired outside the home – for instance at nursery or school.
“Evidence of similarity between N proteins of SARS-CoV-2 and those of endemic beta coronaviruses (strains Cov-OC43 and Cov-NL63) have now been shown in research studies, and there is also evidence of cross-reactivity in antibody-mediated immunity, although it is currently uncertain how well this protects against Covid-19.
“Our study highlights that more research is needed to understand if young children are conferring some protection to those around them.”
The study also found no evidence that living with young children increased adults’ risk of Covid-19, including during the period after schools re-opened to all children in August 2020 and there was active transmission of SARS-CoV2 in the community.
It is currently understood that young children are much less likely than adults to have a severe Covid-19 infection, with most having mild or no symptoms at all.
Scientists do not yet fully understand why this happens, though theories such as innate immune system response and cross-infection immunity as a result of exposure to other coronaviruses have been suggested.
Dr Rachael Wood, Clinical lead for Maternal and Child Health at Public Health Scotland, and an author of the study, said: “This study adds to existing evidence on the limited role that children play in the transmission of Covid-19.
“More work is needed to explore the idea that living with children might offer adults some protection from infection, but what we can already safely say is that children are not major drivers of Covid-19 transmission.
“Spending time playing with others their age is essential for children. However, this does sometimes mean that adults from different households will be brought together.
“When this happens, it is important for parents – as well as teachers and carers – to follow the hygiene and social distancing rules that are in force, to minimise the risk of infection spreading between adults.”
The research is published in Archives of Disease in Childhood.
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