The disinfecting and hand-washing that became common during the COVID-19 pandemic have also served as powerful tools against a host of childhood ailments such as chickenpox, stomach viruses and strep throat, recent data suggest.
Doctors say that as countries with widespread COVID-19 vaccination, including the U.S., get back to normal, people would be well-advised to keep up some of the practices they have adopted—even if pandemic weariness makes them less than eager to take that advice.
“We’ve seen a dramatic decline in the numbers,” said Rana El Feghaly, a pediatrician and director of clinical services at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. “All the peaks that we expected in the winter of this year, we haven’t seen any of those.”
The virtual disappearance of the flu has been well-documented, with cases down 99% or more in the U.S., Europe and other parts of the Northern Hemisphere over the winter. The U.S. recorded just one child death related to the flu in the 2020-21 season, down from 199 the previous year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What is less widely known—in part because the data are more scattered—is the long list of other viruses and bacteria that have found themselves shut out in the pandemic world.
Chickenpox cases in the U.S. this year have fallen by more than two-thirds from pre-pandemic levels, according to the CDC, with similar numbers in Japan and Europe.
Strep throat cases aren’t counted in real time by the CDC, but a few countries do collect weekly data on the disease, a throat infection caused by bacteria called group A Streptococcus. As of May, cases in Japan and England were both down roughly two-thirds compared with pre-pandemic levels.
Data outside the U.S. show the decline is even steeper for another bug, the rotavirus, a common cause of diarrhea and vomiting in small children that is partly but not fully addressed through vaccines. Some countries such as Japan and Germany update rotavirus counts every week. As of May, Japanese cases of these infections were down 99% compared with the same period in 2019 before any pandemic impact, and German cases were down 95%.
Germany also tracks stomach infections from norovirus, a bug that spreads through contaminated surfaces and causes nausea and diarrhea. The result: down 94% this year compared with 2019.
“This is an unbelievable situation,” said Yoshihiro Hayashi, a pediatrician in suburban Tokyo. He said visits involving stomach bugs, sniffles and coughs have become rare, probably because of measures taken against the coronavirus.