Children could be put at risk due to parents not seeking medical help during the coronavirus outbreak, doctors have warned.
The number admitted to Wales’ biggest children’s hospital has fallen by about 75%, compared to last year.
Doctors say potentially life-threatening conditions like meningitis may be missed if parents do not seek help.
The Welsh Government has urged people to use the NHS if they are ill.
Last week, head of the Welsh NHS Dr Andrew Goodall warned people not to leave it too long to seek urgent medical help, after figures showed the number of people attending A&E and GP practices had plummeted.
Where has there been a fall?
-20%Ambulance arrivals at A&E
-35%emergency admissions in hospital
-20 to 25%patient activity at GP practices
Source: NHS Wales, 16 April 2020
Dr Jennifer Evans, a paediatric consultant at the Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospital for Wales in Cardiff, said rough figures showed there had been a 75% fall in children being admitted to the unit compared to this time last year.
She said babies still needed immunisations and children still needed treatment for conditions, despite the pandemic.
“We are anxious other conditions that need urgent treatment including meningitis and sepsis are not being missed and want to reassure parents that children’s departments are open and are safe,” she said.
‘It’s important you take them’
Kate Hancock is used to taking her children to hospital.
But when she had to take her seven-year-old son Joseph to the Children’s Hospital for Wales for a procedure recently, she said she was worried due to fears about the virus.
“It was quite daunting thinking about going into the hospital, whether there might have been people there with the virus or people who have been exposed to it, and all the extra measures in place,” she said.
Joseph, from Llanbradach, was diagnosed with a tumour on his optic nerve and has had years of treatment, including chemotherapy, but is now almost completely blind.
Mrs Hancock said she had never seen the hospital so quiet, but said she felt reassured as her temperature was checked and there were separate entrances and lifts for patients.
She said while Joseph, and her other daughter Molly, three, who also has a genetic condition, needed more appointments, they had been told these might be over the phone to minimise risk.
“It’s great to know that if you need that service, if your child is unwell or if you’ve got any concerns or if you’ve got an appointment that they need to get to, then you know it’s still okay to do that.
“It’s really important that you do.”
Dr David Tuthill, of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said children were very unlikely to get seriously ill from Covid-19, but could become so from other conditions and infections.
Out of the 8,138 known cases of coronavirus in Wales as of Wednesday, 0.4% were children under the age of 10, making them the age group with the least amount of positive cases so far.
The Public Health Wales figures show 0.8% of cases were aged between 10 and 19, but the true number could be higher due to the figure only including people in hospital and whose tests have been confirmed in a lab.
Dr Tuthill, a consultant at the Cardiff hospital, said there had been cases in Italy where children had come into hospital too late after parents had been too worried to go to hospital or had not been able to get advice.
He said while there had been a drop in children being sent and admitted to the children’s hospital, this could be down to children catching less infectious germs due to schools being closed.
But he added doctors were especially worried about children who had not been vaccinated, as they could still get common infections like pneumonia and meningitis.
Children’s Commissioner for Wales Sally Holland said parents may be reluctant to seek help due to feeling like they might put their children or families at risk, or like they would be burdening doctors and nurses during the pandemic.
“But this could result in children not getting the medical help they need for potentially serious illnesses, which would completely outweigh the risk posed by leaving the house and attending hospital,” Dr Holland said.
‘50% drop in referrals’
With many children not attending school or childcare, there are also concerns children’s safety could be at risk due to referrals not being made to social services.
In Gwynedd, there has been a 50% drop in referrals to children’s services, which includes safeguarding referrals, compared to last year.
“We are very aware of the risk of some safeguarding matters not being brought to the attention of our services due to children having less contact with their schools and with the other agencies who usually work with families,” said Marian Parry Hughes, chair of the All Wales Heads of Children’s Services Group.
“It is therefore imperative that anyone who has any concern knows that help and support is available and that they can contact the local authority with their concerns.”