Unlocking the mystery behind COVID-19 immunity
Dr Kirsten Perrett is leading new research that could help protect communities
Associate Professor Kirsten Perrett is a paediatrician at Australia’s Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (MCRI) – one of the world’s top three child health research institutes – and has spent 16 years studying children’s immune systems. We are proud to fund research she is co-leading to help find ways to fight COVID-19 in kids.
We sat down with Dr Perrett to learn more about how the MCRI’s “COVID Immune” research could help protect children – and our communities.
The more we know about the disease, the better we can manage it.”
Rio Tinto and MCRI
In May 2020, we donated A$670,000 to the MCRI, in Melbourne, Australia, to help Dr Perrett and the team research COVID-19’s impact on children. We are proud to play some small part in expanding the world’s understanding of the virus and help protect our communities – and our kids.
Editor: Kirsten, firstly – thank you for the important work you and the team are doing at MCRI. Early last year you started researching how COVID-19 affects children’s immune systems. What do you hope to find?
Dr Perrett: Well, COVID-19 behaves very differently to almost every other virus. One of the biggest differences is that it seems to affect fewer children than adults. So we want to understand the reasons for that. What’s different about kids’ immune systems that may make them less susceptible to COVID-19, when compared to adults? And for kids who do get it, why do some get sicker than others? And how long does their immunity last?
Ed: How do you think this research will help protect communities?
DP: It’s important for a number of reasons. Understanding what stops some kids from getting COVID-19, or from getting very sick with it, can help us find vaccines and treatments.
It can also help governments develop public health policies on things like school closures and quarantine procedures. And the more we know about the disease, the better we can manage it, and the quicker life can get back to normal for everyone.
Ed: You mentioned that COVID-19 affects kids and adults differently. As a parent of two young children, I find that really surprising…my kids are ALWAYS getting sick from viruses.
DP: Yes, it’s one of the biggest mysteries about COVID-19! It infects fewer children than adults, and those children who do get COVID-19 generally have milder symptoms than adults. There are a lot of theories about why this could be. One is that the receptor, which is the part of our cells that the virus sticks to, may not be very common in the airways and blood vessels of children and so the virus is less able to enter and infect the cells. But the bottom line is we don’t really know why, and our research seeks to help us understand it more.
Ed: But it’s still possible for kids to get sick from it, right?
DP: Yes, they absolutely can. Symptoms to look out for include nausea, headache, fever, sore throat, a runny nose, dry cough, and sometimes diarrhoea. If your child has any of these symptoms, you should call your doctor.
There have been some cases of children getting very sick from COVID-19, but thankfully it’s rare.
Ed: We know that good hygiene and physical distancing are ways we can help stay healthy. But what about mental wellbeing? What should we be doing to support our kids?
DP: That’s a great question – the pandemic has changed the way we live, and so it’s not surprising we may be feeling stressed or anxious. And kids have faced huge changes too over the past year, whether it’s home schooling or not seeing grandparents and friends.
There are some simple things you can do – having a routine is really important for younger children, because it helps them feel secure and make sense of their day.
Mindfulness is also important for managing anxiety – it can be as simple as reducing screen time and spending time quietly reading a book together.
For older children, talking about the news and what’s worrying them is important, and also making sure they stay connected with their friends. My MCRI colleagues have done a lot of work in this area – you can find lots of tips on our website.