What you need to know 

  • A recent study found that COVID-19 is a leading cause of death in children in the U.S.
  • COVID-19 is deadlier to children than tetanus, chickenpox, and measles. Vaccines against those diseases save children’s lives every year.
  • Since the start of the pandemic, COVID-19 has killed over 1,400 children. Unvaccinated children are more likely to be hospitalized or die from COVID-19.

Throughout the pandemic, COVID-19 has been viewed as a disease that primarily affects older adults. There’s a good reason for that: People 65 and older account for three-quarters of all COVID-19 deaths. But that doesn’t mean that young people, especially children, have been unaffected by COVID-19. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) examining the toll of COVID-19 on children and teens found that the disease ranks in the top causes of death in the age group.

A team of researchers at the University of Oxford used data from the CDC’s WONDER database, which tracks death data pulled from death certificates. The analysis only included deaths between August 1, 2021, and July 31, 2022, where COVID-19 was the primary cause of death: in other words, death from COVID-19 rather than with COVID-19. Before diving into the study’s findings, it’s important to note that the study isn’t a one-to-one comparison of COVID-19 to other causes of death during the same timeframe. Instead, the goal of the analysis was to put COVID-19 deaths into the appropriate context of overall pediatric deaths. 

COVID-19 is a leading cause of death among children and teens 

When compared to death rankings from 2019 to 2021, COVID-19 was one of the top 10 causes of death in all ages except newborns under 4 weeks old. Overall, COVID-19 was the eighth leading cause of death for those ages 0 to 19. The most common cause of pediatric death is conditions that arise during or shortly after birth. For older infants, children, and adolescents, relatively few deaths are caused by disease. Accidents, including car accidents and drownings, homicide, and suicide are nondisease causes of death that rank higher than COVID-19. 

When limited to disease-related deaths, COVID-19 rises to the fifth leading cause of pediatric death, ranking just under heart diseases. COVID-19 was the number one cause of pediatric death from infectious or respiratory diseases, outranking the flu and pneumonia. All told, COVID-19 deaths made up 2 percent of all deaths in children and teens. Cancer accounted for 4 percent of pediatric deaths in 2019. 

COVID-19 is far deadlier than many vaccine-preventable diseases 

This study highlights how much deadlier COVID-19 is than many diseases targeted by routine immunizations. Children in the U.S. receive vaccines against infectious diseases less deadly than COVID-19. Before vaccines were available, rubella killed an average of 17 people, mostly children, annually. On average, mumps killed 39, chickenpox killed 105, tetanus killed 472, and measles killed about 440 each year. In one year, COVID-19 killed over 800 children. Even at their peaks in the 1940s and 1950s, tetanus and measles didn’t kill as many children as COVID-19. The death and debilitation caused by vaccine-preventable diseases were not something we were willing to accept as a normal part of life. Why should COVID-19 deaths be any different? 

The youngest and least vaccinated are most at risk from COVID-19

Although severe illness from COVID-19 is far less common in children than adults, the disease has hospitalized, disabled, and killed thousands of children in the U.S. alone. Vaccines reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection, hospitalization, severe illness, and death in people of all ages. Vaccinated adolescents and children over age 5 have lower hospitalization rates than their unvaccinated peers. 

Hospitalization and death rates were highest among infants. During the peaks of the Omicron wave, the COVID-19 hospitalization rate of infants under 6 months was roughly the same as the rate for people ages 65 to 74. The JAMA study found that death rates were highest in infants under 1 year old. In fact, the infant COVID-19 death rate was higher than the pediatric death rates for homicide, suicide, cancer, or heart diseases. Infants are the least vaccinated age group. Less than 2 percent of children under age 2 are fully vaccinated, compared to 68 percent of the total population.

Every pediatric death is a tragedy. Most pediatric deaths are not disease-related or result from congenital diseases. Any disease that increases child deaths is a cause for concern. Taking steps to prevent illness and death in people of all ages is the goal of public health. Vaccination is a simple, safe way to protect children and their families against COVID-19.