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coronavirus

Children’s National Hospital and NIAID launch large study on long-term impacts of COVID-19 and MIS-C on kids

coronavirus

Up to 2,000 children and young adults will be enrolled in a study from Children’s National Hospital in collaboration with the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) that will examine the long-term effects of COVID-19 and multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children (MIS-C) after these patients have recovered from a COVID-19 infection.

This $40 million multi-year study will provide important information about quality of life and social impact, in addition to a better understanding of the long-term physical impact of the virus, including effects on the heart and lung. The researchers hope to detail the role of genetics and the immune response to COVID-19, so-called “long COVID” and MIS-C, including the duration of immune responses from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. It is fully funded by a subcontract with the NIH-funded Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research operated by Leidos Biomedical Research, Inc.

“We don’t know the unique long-term impact of COVID-19 or MIS-C on children so this study will provide us with a critical missing piece of the puzzle,” says Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s National and lead researcher for this study. “I am hopeful that the insights from this enormous effort will help us improve treatment of both COVID-19 and MIS-C in the pediatric population both nationally and around the world.”

Over the past year, more than 3.6 million children have tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 and over 2,800 cases of MIS-C have been reported throughout the U.S. While the vast majority of children with primary SARS-CoV-2 infection may have mild or no symptoms, some develop severe illness and may require hospitalization, including life support measures. In rare cases, some children who have previously been infected or exposed to someone with SARS-CoV-2 have developed MIS-C, a serious condition that may be associated with the virus. MIS-C symptoms can include fever, abdominal pain, bloodshot eyes, trouble breathing, rash, vomiting, diarrhea and neck pain, and can progress to shock with low blood pressure and insufficient cardiac function. Long COVID is a wide range of symptoms that can last or appear weeks or even months after being infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.

The study is designed to enroll at least 1,000 children and young adults under 21 years of age who have a confirmed history of symptomatic or asymptomatic SARS-CoV-2 infection or MIS-C. Participants who enroll within 12 weeks of an acute infection will attend study visits every three months for the first six months and then every six months for three years. Participants who enroll more than 12 weeks after acute infection will attend study visits every six months for three years. The study will also enroll up to 1,000 household contacts to serve as a control group, and up to 2,000 parents or guardians (one parent per participant) will complete targeted questionnaires.

“The large number of patients who will be enrolled in this study should provide us with a truly comprehensive understanding of how the virus may continue to impact some patients long after the infection has subsided,” says Dr. DeBiasi.

The study primarily aims to determine incidence and prevalence of, and risk factors for, certain long-term medical conditions among children who have MIS-C or a previous SARS-CoV-2 infection. The study will also evaluate the health-related quality of life and social impacts for participants and establish a biorepository that can be used to study the roles of host genetics, immune response and other possible factors influencing long-term outcomes.

Children’s National was one of the first U.S. institutions to report that children can become very ill from SARS-CoV-2 infection, despite early reports that children were not seriously impacted. In studies published in the Journal of Pediatrics in May of 2020 and June of 2021, Children’s National researchers found that about 25% of symptomatic COVID patients who sought care at our institution required hospitalization. Of those hospitalized, about 25% required life support measures, and the remaining 75% required standard hospitalization. Of patients with MIS-C, 52% were critically ill.

Study sites include Children’s National Hospital inpatient and outpatient clinics in the Washington, D.C. area, and the NIH Clinical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Those interested in participating should submit this form. You will then be contacted by a study team member to review the study details and determine whether you are eligible to participate.

You can find more information about the study here.

little boy at doctor

Demographic, clinical and biomarker features of MIS-C

little boy at doctor

In a new observational study, researchers provide insight into key features distinguishing MIS-C patients to provide a more realistic picture of the burden of disease in the pediatric population and aid with the early detection of disease and treatment for optimal outcomes.

Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C) significantly affected more Black and Latino children than white children, with Black children at the highest risk, according to a new observational study of 124 pediatric patients treated at Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. Researchers also found cardiac complications, including systolic myocardial dysfunction and valvular regurgitation, were more common in MIS-C patients who were critically ill. Of the 124 patients, 63 were ultimately diagnosed with MIS-C and were compared with 61 patients deemed controls who presented with similar symptoms but ultimately had an alternative diagnosis.

In the study, published in The Journal of Pediatrics, researchers provide insight into key features distinguishing MIS-C patients to provide a more realistic picture of the burden of disease in the pediatric population and aid with the early detection of disease and treatment for optimal outcomes. The COVID-linked syndrome has affected nearly 4,000 children in the United States in the past year. Early reports showed severe illness, substantial variation in treatment and mortality associated with MIS-C. However, this study demonstrated that with early recognition and standardized treatment, short-term mortality can be nearly eliminated.

“Data like this will be critical for the development of clinical trials around the long-term implications of MIS-C,” says Dr. Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., lead author and chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s National. “Our study sheds light on the demographic, clinical and biomarker features of this disease, as well as viral load and viral sequencing.”

Of the 63 children with MIS-C, 52% were critically ill, and additional subtypes of MIS-C were identified including those with and without still detectable virus, those with and without features meeting criteria for Kawasaki Disease, and those with and without detectable cardiac abnormalities. While median age (7.25 years) and sex were similar between the MIS-C cohort and control group, Black (46%) and Latino (35%) children were overrepresented in the MIS-C group, especially those who required critical care. Heart complications were also more frequent in children who became critically ill with MIS-C (55% vs. 28%). Findings also showed MIS-C patients demonstrated a distinct cytokine signature, with significantly higher levels of certain cytokines than those of controls. This may help in the understanding of what drives the disease and which potential treatments may be most effective.

In reviewing viral load and antibody biomarkers, researchers found MIS-C cases with detectable virus had a lower viral load than in primary SARS-CoV-2 infection cases, but similar to MIS-C controls who had alternative diagnoses, but who also had detectable virus. A larger proportion of patients with MIS-C had detectable SARS-CoV-2 antibodies than controls. This is consistent with current thinking that MIS-C occurs a few weeks after a primary COVID-19 infection as part of an overzealous immune response.

Viral sequencing was also performed in the MIS-C cohort and compared to cases of primary COVID-19 infection in the Children’s National geographic population. 88% of the samples analyzed fell into the GH clade consistent with the high frequency of the GH clade circulating earlier in the pandemic in the U.S. and Canada, and first observed in France.

“The fact that there were no notable sequencing differences between our MIS-C and primary COVID cohorts suggests that variations in host genetics and/or immune response are more likely primary determinants of how MIS-C presents itself, rather than virus-specific factors,” says Dr. DeBiasi. “As we’ve seen new variants continue to emerge, it will be important to study their effect on the frequency and severity of MIS-C.”

Researchers are still looking for consensus on the most efficacious treatments for MIS-C. In a recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. DeBiasi calls for well-characterized large prospective cohort studies at single centers, and systematic and long-term follow-up for cardiac and non-cardiac outcomes in children with MIS-C. Data from these studies will be a crucial determinant of the best set of treatment guidelines for immunotherapies to treat MIS-C.

boy in hospital bed

Long-term, controlled studies needed to chart optimal MIS-C immunotherapy

boy in hospital bed

Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s National Hospital, cautions that two new studies in the New England Journal of Medicine present seemingly conflicting findings about which treatments for MIS-C are optimal.

Multisystem inflammatory disease in children (MIS-C) has affected nearly 4,000 children in the United States in the last year. Two major studies appearing in the June edition of the New England Journal of Medicine seek to better define which immunotherapy treatments or combinations of treatments — intravenous immune globulin (IVIG), glucocorticoids or biologics — do the best job of combating the syndrome’s effects.

But Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s National Hospital, cautions that though these two studies present seemingly conflicting findings about which treatments are optimal, neither study can provide a complete picture of efficacy, in part due to their retrospective and observational study design and population made up of patients from many different centers. True consensus will likely be found, she writes in an editorial that accompanies the studies in the journal, through single-center prospective cohort studies with standardized treatment approaches and long-term follow-up on outcomes.

“While there is a diagnostic criterion and an agreed upon need to induce a rapid therapy for MIS-C, the scientific community has not been able to agree on specific and optimal forms of immunomodulatory therapy,” she writes.

Despite efforts by the study authors to use statistical methods and modeling to control for variations in treatment applications from center to center, the study data is limited by the fact that the therapies have already been administered, in various combinations, based on conditions at each center where a  child was treated and not on a common set of treatment criteria.

Another challenge for generalizing from the findings of these studies is a mismatch in time. The data collected from the two published studies have two different time frames: before and after variants emerged or at various points during different waves of COVID-19 circulation in the U.S.

“Depending on the strain of initial infection and/or subsequent exposure, the dysregulated hyperimmune response of MIS-C could change,” Dr. DeBiasi says. And along with it, how patients respond to a particular treatment or combination of treatments.

Also, she notes it is too soon for any consortia to assess the impact of these therapies on longer-term outcomes, “specifically, comparative efficacy for progression or resolution of coronary abnormalities and prolonged or permanent cardiac dysfunction or scarring.”

Dr. DeBiasi concludes her editorial with a call for well-characterized large prospective cohort studies at single centers, and systematic and long-term follow-up for cardiac and non-cardiac outcomes in children with MIS-C. Data from these studies will be a crucial determinant of the best set of treatment guidelines for immunotherapies to treat MIS-C. Without findings from these types of studies, the selection of the most efficacious treatments is still unknown.

Read the full editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine: Immunotherapy for MIS-C: IVIG, Glucocorticoids, and Biologics

coronavirus molecules with DNA

Novel SARS-CoV-2 spike variant found in a newborn in Washington, D.C.

coronavirus molecules with DNA

Researchers at Children’s National Hospital found a new SARS-CoV-2 spike variant in a neonatal patient, according to a study that genetically sequenced the virus in 27 pediatric patients. The newborn presented with a viral load of 50,000 times more particles than the average patient, which led to identifying the N679S spike protein variant — the earliest known sample of this coronavirus lineage in the U.S. mid-Atlantic region.

While the paper is posted to the preprint server medRxiv and has not been peer-reviewed, it represents an early step towards establishing better surveillance of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new variant helps understand the process of viral adaptation, potentially informing treatment development and vaccine design for any viral variants in the future.

All genomes change and evolve. Additional viral variants are expected to emerge as more patients are infected. The data analysis recognized eight other cases in Washington, D.C., with the N679S variant, pointing toward a European origin due to the genetic similarity between of SARS-CoV-2 strains in the U.S. and United Kingdom.

“We need to sequence more cases to identify variants and stay ahead of the virus,” said Drew Michael, Ph.D., molecular geneticist at Children’s National and senior author of the study. “The United States sequences a tiny fraction of all cases, and because we are not sequencing enough, we are not aware of the variants in SARS-CoV-2 that may be spreading in our community.”

“Novel SARS-CoV-2 spike variant identified through viral genome sequencing of the pediatric Washington D.C. COVID-19 outbreak,” was published on the preprint server medRxiv. Additional authors include Jonathan LoTempio, Erik Billings, Kyah Draper, Christal Ralph, Mahdi Moshgriz, Nhat Duong, Jennifer Dien Bard, Xiaowu Gai, David Wessel, M.D., Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., Joseph M. Campos, Ph.D., Eric Vilain, M.D., Ph.D. and Meghan Delaney, D.O., M.P.H.

You can read the full preprint on medRxiv.

Acute flaccid myelitis concept illustration

Causes, diagnosis and management of acute flaccid myelitis

Acute flaccid myelitis concept illustration

Acute flaccid myelitis (AFM) is a disabling, polio-like illness mainly affecting children. Outbreaks of AFM have occurred across multiple global regions since 2012, and the disease appears to be caused by non-polio enterovirus infection, posing a major public health challenge. Children’s National Hospital was part of a multi-center study focused on AFM and published in The Lancet.

Children’s National authors include Elizabeth Wells, M.D., director of Inpatient Neurology; Jessica Carpenter, M.D., director of the Neonatal and Childhood Stroke Program and co-director of the Neurocritical Care Program; and Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases.

This review describes the epidemiology, clinical features, course and outcomes of AFM to help to guide diagnosis, management and rehabilitation. Future research directions include further studies evaluating host and pathogen factors, including investigations into genetic, viral and immunological features of affected patients, host-virus interactions and investigations of targeted therapeutic approaches to improve the long-term outcomes in this population.

antibodies attached to COVID

Study shows COVID-19 antibodies and virus can coexist

antibodies attached to COVID

Children’s National study shows that children can have COVID-19 antibodies and the virus in their system simultaneously.

With many questions remaining around how children spread COVID-19, Children’s National Hospital researchers set out to improve the understanding of how long it takes pediatric patients with the virus to clear it from their systems, and at what point they start to make antibodies that work against the coronavirus. The study, published Sept. 3 in the Journal of Pediatrics, finds that the virus and antibodies can coexist in young patients.

“With most viruses, when you start to detect antibodies, you won’t detect the virus anymore. But with COVID-19, we’re seeing both,” says Burak Bahar, M.D., lead author of the study and director of Laboratory Informatics at Children’s National. “This means children still have the potential to transmit the virus even if antibodies are detected.”

She adds that the next phase of research will be to test if the virus that is present alongside the antibodies can be transmitted to other people. It also remains unknown if antibodies correlate with immunity, and how long antibodies and potential protection from reinfection last.

The study also assessed the timing of viral clearance and immunologic response. It found the median time from viral positivity to negativity, when the virus can no longer be detected, was 25 days. The median time to seropositivity, or the presence of antibodies in the blood, was 18 days, while the median time to reach adequate levels of neutralizing antibodies was 36 days. Neutralizing antibodies are important in potentially protecting a person from re-infection of the same virus.

This study used a retrospective analysis of 6,369 children tested for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, and 215 patients who underwent antibody testing at Children’s National between March 13, 2020, and June 21, 2020. Out of the 215 patients, 33 had co-testing for both the virus and antibodies during their disease course. Nine of the 33 showed presence of antibodies in their blood while also later testing positive for the virus.

Also of note, researchers found patients 6 through 15 years old took a longer time to clear the virus (median of 32 days) compared to patients 16 through 22 years old (median of 18 days). Females in the 6-15 age group also took longer to clear the virus than males (median of 44 days for females compared to median of 25.5 days for males).

Although there is emerging data regarding this timing in adults with COVID-19, there is far less data when it comes to the pediatric population. The findings being gathered by Children’s National researchers and scientists around the world are critical to helping understand the unique impact on children and their role in viral transmission.

“The takeaway here is that we can’t let our guard down just because a child has antibodies or is no longer showing symptoms,” says Dr. Bahar. “The continued role of good hygiene and social distancing remains critical.”

Other researchers who contributed to this study include Cyril Jacquot, M.D.; Delores Y Mo,M.D.; Roberta L DeBiasi, M.D.; Joseph Campos, Ph.D.; and Meghan Delaney, D.O.

coronavirus

COVID-19 Pandemic: 3rd Annual CN – NIAID Virtual Symposium

The CN-NIAID Virtual Symposium highlighted work being done to fight the COVID-19 pandemic globally.

sick boy in bed

Clinical features of COVID-19 versus influenza

sick boy in bed

In a cohort retrospective study comparing clinical features of COVID-19 and seasonal flu, researchers found surprisingly little difference in the rates of hospitalization, admission to the intensive care unit and mechanical ventilator use between the two groups.

As the fall approaches, pediatric hospitals will start seeing children with seasonal influenza A and B. At the same time, COVID-19 will be co-circulating in communities with the flu and other respiratory viruses, making it more difficult to identify and prevent the novel coronavirus.

With little published data directly comparing the clinical features of children with COVID-19 to those with seasonal flu, researchers at Children’s National Hospital decided to conduct a retrospective cohort study of patients in the two groups. Their findings — published September 8 in JAMA Network Open — surprised them.

The study — detailed in the article “Comparison of Clinical Features of US Children With COVID-19 vs Seasonal Influenza A and B” — showed no statistically significant differences in the rates of hospitalization, admission to the intensive care unit and mechanical ventilator use between the two groups.

The other unexpected finding was that more patients with COVID-19 than those with seasonal influenza reported fever, cough, diarrhea or vomiting, headache, body ache or chest pain at the time of diagnosis, says Xiaoyan Song, Ph.D., M.Sc., M.B., the study’s principal investigator.

“I didn’t see this coming when I was thinking about doing the study,” says Dr. Song, director of Infection Control and Epidemiology at Children’s National since 2007 and a professor of pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. “It took several rounds of thinking and combing through the data to convince myself that this was the conclusion.”

Given that much remains unknown about COVID-19, the researchers’ discovery that children with the disease present with more symptoms at the time of diagnosis is a valuable one.

“It’s a good cue from a prevention and planning perspective,” says Dr. Song. “We always emphasize early recognition and early isolation with COVID. Having a clinical picture in mind will assist clinicians as they diagnose patients with symptoms of the coronavirus.”

The study included 315 children who were diagnosed with a laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 between March 25, 2020, and May 15, 2020, and 1,402 children who were diagnosed with a laboratory-confirmed seasonal influenza between Oct. 1, 2019, and June 6, 2020, at Children’s National. Asymptomatic patients who tested positive for COVID-19 during pre-admission or pre-procedural screening were excluded from the study.

Of the 315 patients who tested positive for COVID-19, 52% were male, with a median age of 8.4 years. Of these patients, 54 (17.1 %) were hospitalized, including 18 (5.7%) who were admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) and 10 (3.2%) who received mechanical ventilator treatment.

Among the 1,402 patients who tested positive for influenza A or B, 52% were male, with a median age of 3.9 years, and 291 (21.2%) were hospitalized, including 143 for influenza A and 148 for influenza B. Ninety-eight patients (7.0%) were admitted to the ICU, and 27 (1.9%) received mechanical ventilator support.

The study showed a slight difference in the age of children hospitalized with COVID-19 compared to those hospitalized with seasonal influenza. Patients hospitalized with COVID-19 had a median age of 9.7 years vs. those hospitalized with seasonal influenza who had a median age of 4.2 years.

In both groups, fever was the most often reported symptom at the time of diagnosis followed by cough. A greater proportion of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 than those hospitalized with seasonal influenza reported fever (76% vs. 55%), cough (48% vs. 31%), diarrhea or vomiting (26% vs. 12%), headache (11% vs. 3%), body ache/myalgia (22% vs. 7%), and chest pain (11% vs. 3%).

More patients hospitalized with COVID-19 than those with seasonal influenza reported sore throat or congestion (22% vs. 20%) and shortness of breath (30% vs. 20%), but the differences were not statistically significant.

During the study period, the researchers noticed an abrupt decline of influenza cases at Children’s National after local schools closed in mid-March and stay-at-home orders were implemented about two weeks later to combat the community spread of COVID-19. Dr. Song says the impact of school closures on the spread of COVID-19 among children is the next area of study for her research team.

“We want to assess the quantitative impact of school closures so we can determine at what point the cost of closing schools and staying at home outweighs the benefit of reducing transmission of COVID-19 and burdens on the health care system,” she says.

Dr. Song urges members of the community “first and foremost to stay calm and be strong. We’re learning new and valuable things about this virus each day, which in turn improves care. The collision of the flu and COVID-19 this fall could mean an increase in pediatric hospitalizations. That’s why it’s important to get your flu shot, because it can help take at least one respiratory virus out of circulation.”

Other researchers who contributed to this study include Meghan Delaney, D.O.; Rahul K. Shah, M.D.; Joseph M. Campos, Ph.D.; David L. Wessel, M.D.; and Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D.

young boy and teddy bear in face masks

Study provides important insight into spread of COVID-19 in children

young boy and teddy bear in face masks

New research suggests that children can shed SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, even if they never develop symptoms or for long after symptoms have cleared. But many questions remain about the significance of the pediatric population as vectors for this sometimes deadly disease.

New research suggests that children can shed SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, even if they never develop symptoms or for long after symptoms have cleared. But many questions remain about the significance of the pediatric population as vectors for this sometimes deadly disease, according to an invited commentary by Children’s National Hospital doctors that accompanies this new study published online Aug. 28, 2020 in JAMA Pediatrics. The commissioned editorial, written by Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases, and Meghan Delaney, D.O., M.P.H., chief of the Division of Pathology and Lab Medicine, provides important insight on the role children might play in the spread of COVID-19 as communities continue to develop public health strategies to reign in this disease.

The study that sparked this commentary focused on 91 pediatric patients followed at 22 hospitals throughout South Korea. “Unlike in the American health system, those who test positive for COVID-19 in South Korea stay at the hospital until they clear their infections even if they aren’t symptomatic,” explains Dr. DeBiasi.

The patients here were identified for testing through contact tracing or developing symptoms. About 22% never developed symptoms, 20% were initially asymptomatic but developed symptoms later, and 58% were symptomatic at their initial test. Over the course of the study, the hospitals where these children stayed continued to test them every three days on average, providing a picture of how long viral shedding continues over time.

The study’s findings show that the duration of symptoms varied widely, from three days to nearly three weeks. There was also a significant spread in how long children continued to shed virus and could be potentially infectious. While the virus was detectable for an average of about two-and-a-half weeks in the entire group, a significant portion of the children — about a fifth of the asymptomatic patients and about half of the symptomatic ones — were still shedding virus at the three week mark.

Drs. DeBiasi and Delaney write in their commentary that the study makes several important points that add to the knowledge base about COVID-19 in children. One of these is the large number of asymptomatic patients — about a fifth of the group followed in this study. Another is that children, a group widely thought to develop mostly mild disease that quickly passes, can retain symptoms for weeks. A third and important point, they say, is the duration of viral shedding. Even asymptomatic children continued to shed virus for a long time after initial testing, making them potential key vectors.

However, the commentary authors say, despite these important findings, the study raises several questions. One concerns the link between testing and transmission. A qualitative “positive” or “negative” on testing platforms may not necessarily reflect infectivity, with some positives reflecting bits of genetic material that may not be able to make someone sick or negatives reflecting low levels of virus that may still be infectious.

Testing reliability may be further limited by the testers themselves, with sampling along different portions of the respiratory tract or even by different staff members leading to different laboratory results. It’s also unknown whether asymptomatic individuals are shedding different quantities of virus than those with symptoms, a drawback of the qualitative testing performed by most labs. Further, testing only for active virus instead of antibodies ignores the vast number of individuals who may have had and cleared an asymptomatic or mild infection, an important factor for understanding herd immunity.

Lastly, Drs. DeBiasi and Delaney point out, the study only tested for viral shedding from the respiratory tract even though multiple studies have detected the virus in other bodily fluids, including stool. It’s unknown what role these other sources might play in the spread of this disease.

Drs. DeBiasi and Delaney note that each of these findings and additional questions could affect public health efforts continually being developed and refined to bring COVID-19 under control in the U.S. and around the world. Children’s National has added their own research to these efforts, with ongoing studies to assess how SARS-CoV-2 infections proceed in children, including how antibodies develop both at the individual and population level.

“Each of these pieces of information that we, our collaborators and other scientists around the world are working to gather,” says Dr. DeBiasi, “is critical for developing policies that will slow the rate of viral transmission in our community.”

coronavirus

Study finds children can become seriously ill with COVID-19

coronavirus

Despite early reports suggesting COVID-19 does not seriously impact children, a new study shows that children who contract COVID-19 can become very ill.

In contrast to the prevailing view that the novel coronavirus known as COVID-19 does not seriously impact children, a new study finds that children who contract the virus can become very ill—many of them critically so, according to physician researchers at Children’s National Hospital. Their results, published in the Journal of Pediatrics and among the first reports from a U.S. institution caring for children and young adults, shows differences in the characteristics of children who recovered at home, were hospitalized, or who required life support measures. These findings highlight the spectrum of illness in children, and could help doctors and parents better predict which pediatric patients are more likely to become severely ill as a consequence of the virus.

In late 2019, researchers identified a new coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. As the disease spread around the world, the vast majority of reports suggested that elderly patients bear the vast majority of the disease burden and that children are at less risk for either infection or severe disease. However, study leader Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s National, states that she and her colleagues began noticing an influx of children coming to the hospital for evaluation of a range of symptoms starting in mid-March 2020, who were tested and determined to be infected with COVID-19. One quarter of these children required hospitalization or life support.

“It was very apparent to us within the first several weeks of the epidemic that this was a very different situation than our colleagues on the West Coast of the US had described as their experience just weeks before,” DeBiasi says. “Right away, we knew that it was important for us to not only care for these sick children, but to examine the factors causing severe disease, and warn others who provide medical care to children.”

To better understand this phenomenon, she and her colleagues examined the medical records of symptomatic children and young adults who sought treatment at Children’s National for COVID-19 between March 15 and April 30, 2020. Each of these 177 children tested positive using a rapid assay to detect SARS-CoV-2 performed at the hospital. The researchers gathered data on each patient, including demographic details such as age and sex; their symptoms; whether they had any underlying medical conditions; and whether these patients were non-hospitalized, hospitalized, or required critical care.

The results of their analysis show that there was about an even split of male and female patients who tested positive for COVID-19 at Children’s National during this time period. About 25% of these patients required hospitalization. Of those hospitalized, about 75% weren’t considered critically ill and about 25% required life support measures. These included supplemental oxygen delivered by intubation and mechanical ventilation, BiPAP, or high-flow nasal cannula – all treatments that support breathing – as well as other support measures such as dialysis, blood pressure support and medications to treat infection as well as inflammation.

Although patients who were hospitalized spanned the entire age range, more than half of them were either under a year old or more than 15 years old. The children and young adults over 15 years of age, Dr. DeBiasi explains, were more likely to require critical care.

About 39% of all COVID-19 patients had underlying medical conditions, including asthma, which has been highlighted as a risk factor for worse outcomes with this infection. However, DeBiasi says, although underlying conditions were more common as a whole in hospitalized patients – present in about two thirds of hospitalized and 80% of critically ill – asthma didn’t increase the risk of hospitalization or critical illness. On the other hand, children with underlying neurological conditions, such as cerebral palsy, microcephaly, or global developmental delay, as well as those with underlying cardiac, hematologic, or oncologic conditions were significantly more likely to require hospitalization.

In addition, although early reports of COVID-19 suggested that fever and respiratory symptoms are hallmarks of this infection, Dr. DeBiasi and her colleagues found that fewer than half of patients had both concurrently. Those with mild, upper respiratory symptoms, such as runny nose, congestion, and cough were less likely to end up hospitalized than those with more severe respiratory symptoms, such as shortness of breath. The frequency of other symptoms including diarrhea, chest pain and loss of sense of smell or taste was similar among hospitalized and non-hospitalized patients.

Dr. DeBiasi notes that although other East Coast hospitals are anecdotally reporting similar upticks in pediatric COVID-19 patients who become seriously ill, it’s currently unclear what factors might account for differences from the less frequent and milder pediatric illness on the West Coast. Some factors might include a higher East Coast population density, differences between the genetic, racial and ethnic makeup of the two populations, or differences between the viral strains circulating in both regions (an Asian strain on the West Coast, and a European strain on the East Coast).

Regardless, she says, the good news is that the more researchers learn about this viral illness, the better prepared parents, medical personnel and hospitals will be to deal with this ongoing threat.

Other researchers from Children’s National who participated in this study include Xiaoyan Song, Ph.D., M.Sc.Meghan Delaney, D.O., M.P.H.Michael Bell, M.D. Karen Smith, M.D.Jay Pershad, M.D., Emily Ansusinha, Andrea Hahn, M.D., M.S., Rana Hamdy, M.D., M.P.H., MSCE, Nada Harik, M.D.Benjamin Hanisch, M.D.Barbara Jantausch, M.D.Adeline Koay, MBBS, MS.c., Robin Steinhorn, Kurt Newman, M.D. and David Wessel, M.D.

Dengue virus

Children’s National/NIH team competes in #IDbugbowl

Dengue virus

IDBugBowl team member Maria Susana Rueda-Altez, M.D., hopes her knowledge of infectious diseases common to Peru, like dengue virus, will give her team an advantage.

It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s an infectious agent that zipped past country borders, infecting international passengers who shared the same commercial aircraft as a person who had symptomatic illness.

The buzzer rings. And the correct answer is: What is severe acute respiratory syndrome?

This fall, a combined team from Children’s National in Washington, D.C. and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will compete against three other teams testing their collective infectious disease knowledge through IDBugBowl, a Jeopardy-style quiz geared toward fellows, residents and medical students. The competition is held during IDWeek2019. “From anaplasmosis to Zika, any topic is fair game,” according to organizers.

“BugBowl has become so popular that the IDWeek 2019 program committee carved out a separate time for the contest to ensure it would not conflict with any other symposia,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., MS, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s National. “On a day-to-day basis, we all contend with serious infectious diseases that have the potential to jeopardize human health. However, this event helps to expand knowledge among the general public in a fun and engaging way.”

The Children’s National/NIH team participating in the Oct. 5 trivia contest includes:

  • Kevin Lloyd, M.D., third-year pediatrics resident
  • Maria Susana Rueda-Altez, M.D., third-year pediatrics resident
  • Kanal Singh, M.D., fellow, adult infectious diseases at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and
  • Alexandra Yonts, M.D., fellow, pediatric infectious diseases at Children’s National

Even though she has little formal training in infectious diseases, team member Dr. Rueda-Altez says: “One thing I have in my favor is that I’m from Peru. We’re used to seeing infectious diseases that are less common elsewhere, including tuberculosis and hantavirus.”

And while disease-carrying mosquitoes aren’t abundant at Peru’s higher altitudes, closer to sea level and in its rain forests, infected mosquitoes spread chikungunya, dengue, malaria and Zika, she adds.

Take this quiz to test your infectious disease knowledge.

Dr. DeBiasi

Staying one step ahead of deadly Ebola

Dr. DeBiasi

An ongoing outbreak of Ebola virus since 2018 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that has resulted in millions of travelers being screened at checkpoints, hundreds of thousands of vaccinations and thousands of deaths is a stark reminder of the need to remain one step ahead of the deadly disease.

To that end, one-half dozen personnel from Children’s National in Washington, D.C., including infectious diseases experts, critical care nurses and laboratory personnel traveled to New York in mid-August for an interactive workshop sponsored by the National Ebola Training and Education Center. They covered how to correctly don and doff protective gear, safely collect, handle and process specimens and discuss the special circumstances that arise when caring for pediatric patients, among other topics.

“Since 2014, Children’s National has evaluated 6 children with exposure as Persons Under Investigation of  Ebola virus disease, 4 of  whom required extended inpatient hospitalization under full isolation precautions,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., MS, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. “As a designated Ebola Treatment Center, we must continue our preparedness to care for additional patients with suspected and proven Ebola infection.

“Hands-on training and  drilling offer Children’s National personnel an opportunity to continue to test, evaluate and optimize our institutional Ebola response plan and procedures to maintain our preparedness for the needs of future patients,” adds Dr. DeBiasi.

In addition to Dr. DeBiasi, members of the Children’s National Special Pathogens Isolation Unit team who attended the Emerging Infectious Disease Workshop included:

  • Zohreh Hojjati, Laboratory Medicine.
  • Kristin Elizabeth Mullins, Clinical Lab Director, Laboratory Medicine.
  • Daniel Schroeder, Registered Nurse II, Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU).
  • Melissa Taylor, Registered Nurse II, PICU.
  • Heather Wellman, Registered Nurse II, PICU.

“Among the keys to Children’s National serving as a national exemplar for pediatric Ebola care, is the stability of our multidisciplinary care team and our institutional commitment to ongoing training,” Dr. DeBiasi adds.

During a Grand Rounds presentation at Children’s National in mid-August, Dr. DeBiasi provided updates about recent global infectious disease outbreaks affecting pediatric patients including Ebola, measles, acute flaccid myelitis and Zika Virus. An interdisciplinary panel of Children’s National experts, including nurses, transport specialists, infectious disease and intensive care experts directly involved in caring for Ebola Persons Under Investigation, demonstrated personal protective equipment and fielded questions from staff. The overview also outlined Children’s National institutional expertise and response, including the Congenital Zika Virus Program, the Acute Flaccid Myelitis Task Force, the Special Isolation Unit for Ebola and other highly contagious infectious diseases.

View Ebola preparedness photo gallery.

Sarah Mulkey

MRI and ultrasound imaging detect the spectrum of Zika’s impact

Sarah Mulkey

“A combination of prenatal MRI and US was able to detect Zika-related brain abnormalities during pregnancy, giving families timely information to prepare for the potential complex care needs of these infants,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D.

Worldwide, thousands of babies have been born to mothers who were infected during pregnancy with Zika, a virus associated with neurological deficits, impaired vision and neurodevelopmental disabilities, among other birth defects. These birth defects are sometimes severe, causing lifelong disability. But they’re also relatively rare compared with the overall rates of infection.

Predicting how many Zika-exposed babies would experience neurological birth defects has been challenging.

However, an international study led by Children’s faculty suggests that ultrasound (US) imaging performed during pregnancy and after childbirth revealed most Zika-related brain abnormalities experienced by infants exposed to the Zika virus during pregnancy, according to a prospective cohort study published online Nov. 26, 2018, in JAMA Pediatrics. Some Zika-exposed infants whose imaging had been normal during pregnancy had mild brain abnormalities detected by US and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) after they were born.

“A combination of prenatal MRI and US was able to detect Zika-related brain abnormalities during pregnancy, giving families timely information to prepare for the potential complex care needs of these infants,” says Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., a fetal-neonatal neurologist at Children’s National Health System and the study’s lead author. “In our study, we detected mild brain abnormalities on postnatal neuroimaging for babies whose imaging was normal during pregnancy. Therefore, it is important for clinicians to continue to monitor brain development for Zika-exposed infants after birth.”

As of Nov. 20 2018, nearly 2,500 pregnant women in the U.S. had laboratory confirmed Zika infection, and about 2,400 of them had given birth, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While more than 100 U.S. infants were born with Zika-associated birth defects, the vast majority of Zika-exposed U.S. infants were apparently normal at birth. The sequential neuroimaging study Dr. Mulkey leads seeks to determine the spectrum of brain findings in infants exposed to Zika in the womb using both US and MRI before and after birth.

The international research team enrolled 82 women in the study from June 15, 2016, through June 27, 2017. All of the women had been exposed to Zika during pregnancy; all but one experienced clinical symptoms by a mean gestational age of 8.2 weeks. Eighty of those women lived in or near Barranquilla, Colombia, and were exposed to Zika there. Two U.S. study participants were exposed to the primarily mosquito-borne illness during travel to Zika hot zones.

All women received fetal MRIs and US during the second and/or third trimester of pregnancy. After their infants were born, the children received brain MRI and cranial US. Blood samples from both mothers and babies were tested for Zika using polymerase chain reaction and serology.

Fetal MRI was able to discern Zika-related brain damage as early as 18 weeks gestation and picked up significant fetal brain abnormalities not fully appreciated in US imaging. In one case, the US remained normal while fetal MRI alone detected brain abnormalities. Three fetuses (4 percent) had severe fetal brain abnormalities consistent with Zika infection, including:

Seventy-five infants were born at term. One pregnancy was terminated at 23 weeks gestation due to the gravity of the fetal brain abnormalities. One fetus with normal imaging died during pregnancy. One newborn who was born with significant fetal brain abnormalities died at age 3 days.

Cranial US and brain MRI was performed on the majority of infants whose prenatal imaging had been normal.  Seven of 53 (13 percent) Zika-exposed infants had mild brain abnormalities detected by MRI after birth. In contrast, postnatal cranial US was better at detecting changes of lenticulostriate vasculopathy, cysts within the brain’s choroid plexus (cells that produce cerebrospinal fluid), germinolytic/subependymal cysts and/or calcifications, which were seen in 21 of 57 (37 percent) infants.

“Sequential neuroimaging revealed that the majority of Zika-exposed fetuses had normal brain development. Tragically, in a small number of pregnancies, Zika-related brain abnormalities were quite severe,” Dr. Mulkey adds. “Our data support the CDC’s recommendation that cranial US be performed after Zika-exposed babies are born. In addition, there is clearly a need to follow these babies over time to gauge whether the brain anomalies we see in imaging affects language, motor and social skills.”

Companion editorial: Revealing the effects of Zika

In addition to Dr. Mulkey, study co-authors include Dorothy I. Bulas, M.D.Gilbert Vezina, M.D., Margarita Arroyave-Wessel, MPH,  Stephanie Russo, B.S, Youssef A. Kousa, D.O, Ph.D.Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., MS, Senior Author Adré J. du Plessis, M.B.Ch.B., MPH, all of Children’s National; Christopher Swisher, BS, Georgetown University and Caitlin Cristante, BS, Loyola University, both of  whose contributions included research performed at Children’s National; Yamil Fourzali, M.D., Armando Morales, M.D., both of Sabbag Radiologos; Liliana Encinales, M.D., Allied Research Society; Nelly Pacheco, Bacteriologa, Bio-Nep; Robert S. Lanciotti, Ph.D., Arbovirus Diseases Branch, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; and Carlos Cure, M.D., BIOMELAB.

Research reported in this news release was supported by the IKARIA fund.

Deer tick

Lyme disease: When will pediatric symptoms resolve?

Deer tick

Over a 13-year period that began in 2004, cases of illness transmitted by ticks, mosquitoes and fleas have more than tripled, the CDC found.

The summer of 2018 was a bad summer for Lyme disease, the tick-borne disease that was first documented in the 1970s in the town of Lyme, Connecticut. While about 30,000 cases of this disease had been reported annually in recent years, studies suggest that the actual number of infections is around 10 times greater.

And according to a study published May 2018 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), those case numbers may increase over time. Over a 13-year period that began in 2004, cases of illness transmitted by ticks, mosquitoes and fleas have more than tripled, the CDC found.

Lyme disease causes a host of uncomfortable symptoms, ranging from headache and neurological problems, heart problems and eye inflammation in earlier stages, and progressing to joint pain and arthritis in later stages. While it can be treated successfully with appropriate antibiotics, the timeframe for kids’ symptom resolution has been unclear.

A new study by researchers at Children’s National Health System shows that symptoms improve just days or weeks after starting antibiotic therapy for the vast majority of patients, with people whose symptoms had been present a briefer time improving the fastest.

“These findings offer a reassuring timeline for doctors, patients and their families about when patients with Lyme disease can expect to feel better,” says study Senior Author Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., MS, Children’s National’s chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and co-director of the Congenital Zika Virus Program. Dr. DeBiasi was recently appointed to serve on a 52-member Tick-Borne Disease Working Group established in 2018 by the Department of Health and Human Services.

Dr. DeBiasi and colleagues collected data retrospectively from the medical records of 78 patients who had been hospitalized at Children’s National for Lyme disease from 2008 to 2015. Each child, who was younger than 18 years old, had documented symptoms and lab tests conclusive for this disease.

Just under one-half had symptoms consistent with early-stage disease, such as:

  • A severe headache
  • Meningitis (inflammation of the membranes covering the brain)
  • Cranial nerve palsy (a nerve dysfunction that affects eye movement and can cause double vision)
  • Multiple erythema migrans rashes (the bulls-eye-shaped rash that’s a hallmark of Lyme disease) and
  • Pseudotumor cerebri (increased pressure inside the skull).

Just over one-half had symptoms consistent with late-stage disease, which mostly consisted of arthritis affecting the knees, along with the hips and elbows in some cases.

In the hospital, each patient was started on an antibiotic that can effectively treat Lyme, including doxycycline, cefotaxime or ceftriaxone, which they continued at home for the prescribed length of the course. The researchers then tracked how quickly the patients’ symptoms resolved.

They report online July 30, 2018, in the Journal of the Pediatric Infectious Diseases Society, that the time to symptom resolution for early stages of disease did not depend on the duration of symptoms prior to starting antibiotics. However, for later stages of disease, patients with longer duration of symptoms prior to starting treatment took longer for their symptoms to resolve.

For patients with early-stage disease, the most common symptom was headache; the median time to symptom resolution was just three days, no matter how long the headache had persisted before treatment started. However, for patients with late-stage Lyme disease, the median time to resolution was 18 days. However, the time depended largely on how long symptoms had persisted before patients began taking antibiotics. For example, patients who had experienced arthritis for less than one week had a shorter time to resolution than those who had arthritis for more than two weeks.

This finding is important, Dr. DeBiasi says, because it suggests that diagnosing Lyme disease earlier – and prescribing the appropriate therapy as soon as possible – can hasten recovery. The vast majority of patients in the study, she adds, eventually experienced full resolution of their symptoms, which should be comforting to families worried about whether their child will ever feel well again.

“We all want what patients and their families want: to feel better as quickly as possible,” Dr. DeBiasi says. “This study gives us valuable information about how soon that will happen given the duration of pediatric patients’ symptoms.”

Dr. DeBiasi and Children’s Psychologist Maureen Monaghan, Ph.D., are leading another Lyme study in collaboration with the National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to evaluate symptom resolution, quality of life and neurocognitive outcomes in a larger group of pediatric patients with Lyme disease.

In addition to Dr. DeBiasi and Monaghan, Children’s co-authors include Lead Author Mattia E. Chason; Biostatistician Jichuan Wang, Ph.D.; and Yao Cheng.

bacteriophage

Phage therapy draws renewed interest to combat drug-resistant microbes

bacteriophage

In the face of growing antibiotic resistance and few antibiotics in the development pipeline, phages are drawing renewed research interest as a potential silver bullet.

The married professors were spending their Thanksgiving holiday in Egypt when the husband, Thomas L. Patterson, Ph.D., got very sick very quickly, experiencing fever, nausea and a racing heartbeat. By the time Patterson was accurately diagnosed with a highly multi-drug resistant bacterial infection, he was near death. His wife, Steffanie Strathdee, Ph.D., promised to “leave no stone unturned.’”

What happened next is the ultimate infectious disease feel good story: Strathdee, part of an All-Star team of infectious disease experts and epidemiologists, concocted a cocktail of viruses that killed the superbug and saved Patterson’s life.

“He was going to die,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., MS, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s National Health System. “Because of her epidemiology background – and because she loves him – Patterson became the first patient successfully treated with bacteriophages.”

Dr. DeBiasi explains that all viruses take over cells and use their machinery for their own purposes. In order to escape, viruses blow up the cell. Bacteriophages are viruses that target bacteria, taking over their machinery and ultimately killing the bacterial host.

“Infection is a race between the body’s immune response and the bacteria replicating themselves,” she adds. “Bacteria have to continually replicate. If you knock out 90 percent of them with phage therapy, that gives the immune system a fighting chance to win the race.”

She was so inspired by the team’s ingenuity that DeBiasi, program vice-chair, invited them to recount the story during IDWeek2018, held Oct. 3 to Oct. 7, 2018, in San Francisco. During the closing plenary, Patterson, a professor of psychiatry, and Strathdee, associate dean of Global Health Sciences, will be joined by Robert T. “Chip” Schooley, M.D., (all of University of California, San Diego), to discuss the clinical aspects and efficacy of phage therapy.

About 50 years ago, the U.S. military had investigated leveraging phages but ultimately placed that research portfolio on the back burner. Now, in the face of growing antibiotic resistance and few experimental antibiotics in the development pipeline, phages are drawing renewed research interest as a potential silver bullet.

“The technology has been around for 50 years. We’re going back to old things because we’re so desperate,” Dr. DeBiasi adds.

The tricky thing with phages is that each bacterium needs its own tailored phage therapy.

Children’s National is working with Adaptive Phage Therapeutics, a company based in Gaithersburg, Maryland, that developed the phage used to save Patterson, in order to help build out that library of phages, each ready to be directed to do battle against a specific pathogen.

“We have been consultants to them to think about what would be a good clinical trial, particularly in a pediatric population,” Dr. DeBiasi says.

Children’s National has been collecting and sending isolates from patients with neurogenic bladder who experience urinary tract infections to shore up the phage library in anticipation of a clinical trial. The work builds on Children’s experience as the first center to use phage therapy in a pediatric patient, a 2-year-old who had multidrug-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa infection complicated by bacteremia/sepsis.

Neonatal baby

Multidisciplinary experts help CDC’s Zika research

“We are very excited about this next phase in our Zika research,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S. “It is a natural extension of our earlier participation as subject matter experts assisting as the CDC developed and published guidelines to inform the care of Zika-exposed and Zika-infected infants across the nation and U.S. territories.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is funding three multidisciplinary experts from the Congenital Zika Virus Program at Children’s National Health System to collaborate on two of the CDC’s longitudinal Zika research projects in Colombia, South America.

“Zika en embarazadas y niños en Colombia” (ZEN) is a research study jointly designed by Colombia’s Instituto Nacional de Salud (INS) and the CDC to evaluate the association between Zika virus infection and adverse maternal, fetal and infant health outcomes. The study is following a large cohort of Colombian women from the first trimester of pregnancy, their male partners and their infants.

Under the six-month contract, Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., and Cara Biddle, M.D., M.P.H., will serve as consultants for the ZEN study providing expertise in pediatric infectious diseases, neurology, neurodevelopment and coordination of the complex care needs of Zika-affected infants.

The federal funding will underwrite the consultants’ work effort, as well as travel to the CDC’s headquarters in Atlanta and to research sites in Colombia. To that end, Drs. DeBiasi, Mulkey and Biddle participated in a December 2017 kickoff meeting, joining ZEN team leaders based in the U.S. at the CDC, as well as the INS in Colombia, with whom they will conduct research and collaborate academically.

Cara-Biddle-and-Sarah-Mulkey

Cara Biddle, M.D., M.P.H., and Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., also will serve as consultants for the ZEN study.

“We are very excited about this next phase in our Zika research,” says Dr. DeBiasi, chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and co-director of the Children’s Zika program. “It is a natural extension of our earlier participation as subject matter experts assisting as the CDC developed and published guidelines to inform the care of Zika-exposed and Zika-infected infants across the nation and U.S. territories.”

Children’s National is leading its own longitudinal studies in Colombia that explore such questions as whether Zika-exposed infants whose neuroimaging appears normal when they are born experience any longer-term neurological issues and the role of genetics in neurologic injury following congenital Zika virus exposure and infection.

Roberta DeBiasi and Sarah Mulkey

Children’s National experts contribute to new Zika guidelines

Roberta DeBiasi and Sarah Mulkey

Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., M. S., and Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., members of Children’s multidisciplinary Congenital Zika Virus Program, were among the experts invited to participate in a forum held in Atlanta at CDC headquarters in late August to formulate new Zika recommendations.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Oct. 19, 2017 updated guidelines for evaluation of women, fetuses and infants exposed to the Zika virus during pregnancy. Although only women with symptoms will now be routinely tested, asymptomatic and symptomatic infants born to these women will still be tested for the Zika virus using blood and urine tests.

Infants who appear normal, whose mothers either had negative Zika results or who had not undergone testing, will not undergo Zika testing. These infants still will undergo a standard evaluation, including a detailed physical exam, hearing screen and routine developmental assessments. The revised Zika guidance includes input from practitioners on the front lines of the Zika epidemic, including Children’s National Health System clinicians.

“These changes in the recommendations for Zika testing should not be interpreted as Zika infection risks subsiding for pregnant women and their infants in the United States. It’s simply an acknowledgement of the limitations of current testing methods – which must occur within a narrow window after Zika exposure – and the poor predictive value of Zika testing right now,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of Children’s Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases. Dr. DeBiasi and Sarah B. Mulkey, M.D., Ph.D., members of Children’s multidisciplinary Congenital Zika Virus Program, were among the experts invited to participate in the Zika forum held in Atlanta at CDC headquarters in late August to formulate the recommendations.

While all infants will receive a standard evaluation, expanded evaluations that include an ophthalmologic assessment, more detailed hearing evaluation and ultrasound of the newborn’s head will be reserved for infants born to mothers confirmed to be Zika positive or Zika probable, or for infants born with abnormalities potentially consistent with congenital Zika syndrome, regardless of maternal status.

The majority of U.S. infants who have been exposed to Zika in the womb appeared normal at birth, according to CDC registries. Now, the next wave of these normal-appearing babies will receive standard evaluations when they are born, including a newborn hearing screening. At each well-child visit, these infants will receive:

  • A comprehensive physical examination
  • An age-appropriate vision screening
  • Developmental monitoring and screening using validated tools

“This is a natural evolution in the diagnosis and screening strategy now that the peak of the first wave of Zika transmission appears to be over,” Dr. DeBiasi says. “While we continue to evaluate new possible cases of Zika infection among pregnant women in our practice, a sizable proportion of Children’s cases are Zika-exposed infants whose physical exam and neuroimaging appeared normal at birth. Through ongoing monitoring, we hope to learn more about these children’s long-term neurodevelopment outcomes.”

What Children’s has learned about congenital Zika infection

Roberta DeBiasi

Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., outlined lessons learned during a pediatric virology workshop at IDWeek2017, one of three such Zika presentations led by Children’s National research-clinicians during this year’s meeting of pediatric infectious disease specialists.

The Congenital Zika Virus Program at Children’s National Health System provides a range of advanced testing and services for exposed and infected fetuses and newborns. Data that the program has gathered in evaluating and managing Zika-affected pregnancies and births may offer instructive insights to other centers developing similar programs.

The program evaluated 36 pregnant women and their fetuses from January 2016 through May 2017. Another 14 women and their infants were referred to the Zika program for postnatal consultations during that time.

“As the days grow shorter and temperatures drop, we continue to receive referrals to our Zika program, and this is a testament to the critical need it fulfills in the greater metropolitan D.C. region,” says Roberta L. DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and co-leader of the program. “Our multidisciplinary team now has consulted on 90 dyads (mothers and their Zika-affected fetuses/infants). The lessons we learned about when and how these women were infected and how their offspring were affected by Zika may be instructive to institutions considering launching their own programs.”

Dr. DeBiasi outlined lessons learned during a pediatric virology workshop at IDWeek2017, one of three such Zika presentations led by Children’s National research-clinicians during this year’s meeting of pediatric infectious disease specialists.

“The Zika virus continues to circulate in dozens of nations, from Angola to the U.S. Virgin Islands. Clinicians considering a strategic approach to managing pregnancies complicated by Zika may consider enlisting an array of specialists to attend to infants’ complex care needs, including experts in fetal imaging, pediatric infectious disease, physical therapists, audiologists, ophthalmologists and radiologists skilled at reading serial magnetic resonance images as well as ultrasounds,” Dr. DeBiasi says. “At Children’s we have a devoted Zika hotline to triage patient and family concerns. We provide detailed instructions for referring institutions explaining protocols before and after childbirth, and we provide continuing education for health care professionals.”

Of the 36 pregnant women possibly exposed to Zika during pregnancy seen in the program’s first year, 32 lived in the United States and traveled to countries where Zika virus was circulating. Two women had partners who traveled to Zika hot zones. And two moved to the Washington region from places where Zika is endemic. Including the postnatal cases, 89 percent of patients had been bitten by Zika-tainted mosquitoes, while 48 percent of women could have been exposed to Zika via sex with an infected partner.

Twenty percent of the women were exposed before conception; 46 percent were exposed to Zika in the first trimester of pregnancy; 26 percent were exposed in the second trimester; and 8 percent were exposed in the final trimester. In only six of 50 cases (12 percent) did the Zika-infected individual experience symptoms.

Zika infection can be confirmed by detecting viral fragments but only if the test occurs shortly after infection. Twenty-four of the 50 women (nearly 50 percent) arrived for a Zika consultation outside that 12-week testing window. Eleven women (22 percent) had confirmed Zika infection and another 28 percent tested positive for the broader family of flavivirus infections that includes Zika. Another detection method picks up antibodies that the body produces to neutralize Zika virus. For seven women (14 percent), Zika infection was ruled out by either testing method.

“Tragically, four fetuses had severe Zika-related birth defects,” Dr. DeBiasi says. “Due to the gravity of those abnormalities, two pregnancies were not carried to term. The third pregnancy was carried to term, but the infant died immediately after birth. The fourth pregnancy was carried to term, but that infant survived less than one year.”

Exchanging ideas

Exchanging ideas, best practices in China

Exchanging ideas

Physicians from the Children’s National delegation attended the Shanghai Pediatric Innovation Forum in June 2017. Pictured (left to right): Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., Michael Mintz, M.D., Robert Keating, M.D., Lawrence Jung, M.D., Peter Kim, M.D., and Sarah Birch, D.N.P., A.P.R.N.

In late June, a delegation of international pediatric experts from Children’s National Health System journeyed across the world to learn about the practice of pediatric medicine in China and to exchange ideas with colleagues there. Leaders from several of Children’s key specialties joined the delegation, including:

The group, led by Drs. Keating and Gaillard, traveled to China with Children’s Outreach Coordinator John Walsh, whose longtime connections and close familiarity with the pediatric medical community in Hangzhou and Shanghai made the collaboration possible. The team toured several of the largest children’s hospitals in country, including The Children’s Hospital of Zhejiang University School of Medicine in Hangzhou and Shanghai Children’s Medical Center, connecting with pediatric specialists there.

“Some of the most important parts of this trip were the opportunities to exchange ideas and solidify long term relationships that will allow us to work closely with our peers in China as they develop their pediatric programs. The potential is tremendous for unique collaborations between our teams and theirs for research and the development of clinical care improvements for children,” said Roger Packer, M.D., senior vice president of the Center for Neuroscience and Behavioral Medicine, who joined the delegation in Beijing.

A keynote lecture and more at the 3rd China International Forum on Pediatric Development

The delegation also was honored with an invitation to participate in the 3rd China International Forum on Pediatric Development. The forum is one of the largest pediatric focused meetings in the country and is led by all the major children’s hospitals in China, including those in Beijing and Shanghai. Close to 4,000 pediatricians attended the meeting, and presenters included esteemed international leaders in pediatric medicine from around the world.

Dr. Packer delivered one of the opening keynote lectures, entitled, “Translation of molecular advances into care: the challenge ahead for children’s hospitals.” His talk focused on the tremendous promise and significant challenges posed by the latest scientific advances, through the lens of a neurologist.

“Across the world, we are looking at the same challenges: How can we use scientific advances to find better outcomes? How can we financially support the new types of interventions made possible by these molecular biologics insights when they can cost millions of dollars for one patient?”

“There’s palpable excitement that these new developments will give us potential therapies we never dreamed about before, ways to reverse what we initially thought was irreversible brain damage, ways to prevent severe illnesses including brain tumors, but the issue is how to turn this promise into reality. That’s a worldwide issue, not simply a single country’s issue,” he continued.

He also flagged mental health and behavioral health as a crucial, universal challenge in need of addressing on both sides of the Pacific.

The Children’s National delegation, including Drs. DeBiasi, Song, Keating, Gaillard and Packer were also honored to share their insight in a series of specialty-specific breakout sessions at the Forum.

Overall, the long journey opened a dialogue between Children’s National and pediatric care providers in China, paving the way for future discussion about how to learn from each other and collaborate to enhance all institutions involved.

Children’s National expert joins a national discussion on Zika and other emerging threats

Roberta DeBiasi

“Our goal is to provide the earliest and most accurate information to women affected by Zika exposure and infection during pregnancy, including capability for fetal MRI,” says Roberta DeBiasi, M.D., M.S., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and co-director of the Congenital Zika Virus Program at Children’s National Health System.

An expert roundtable discussion, “Facing the Zika Crisis and Other Emerging Threats,” organized in collaboration with Purdue University, the Gallup Organization and the Bipartisan Policy Center, was recently held at the U.S. Capitol. Chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and Co-Director of the Congenital Zika Program at Children’s National Health System, Roberta DeBiasi, M.D.,M.S., weighed in on the discussion, sharing knowledge on the challenges to the United States health system and the continuous research and work that the Children’s National Congenital Zika program does.

Eighteen months ago, Children’s National received its first referral for a Washington, D.C. woman who had a Zika infected pregnancy in January 2016. This case prompted the development of the Congenital Zika program to serve as a consultation resource for affected women and infants, and to perform research to address the knowledge gaps concerning Zika infection during pregnancy: Young researchers tackle Zika’s unanswered questions.

“Our goal is to provide the earliest and most accurate information to women affected by Zika exposure and infection during pregnancy, including capability for fetal MRI,” says Dr. DeBiasi.

Since then, the Zika team has evaluated 65 mother-fetus/infant pairs. Researchers are actively learning the best methods for detection of infection and neurologic injury by continually conducting research and obtaining new and useful information that can be shared with others. The research mission of the Congenital Zika program is now focusing on several areas, which include the study of biomarkers to predict if the infant could be affected by the disease, the utility of a fetal MRI in conjunction with ultrasound, genetic risk factors in mothers and infants that might explain why some infants become infected and some do not, long term neurodevelopment of babies that are infected, and neuropathologic evaluations of brains from fetuses that have died from Zika.

The challenges and concerns that were presented for the United States health system include the willingness and ability to share information, the acceptance of the need for data sharing between institutions and determining if testing resources are adequate and appropriate.

Dr. DeBiasi says, “Institutions have become much better at looking at how to prepare for emerging infectious diseases on a broader level.” Proactively thinking, Dr. DeBiasi finds it useful for health systems to use their own task forces, such as the Ebola Response Task force at Children’s National, as a cohesive existing team that will be prepared for additional infectious disease threats that may arise.