Case Reports Underscore Risk for Cerebral Edema, AFCE in Children With COVID-19

Randy Dotinga

October 08, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

An 8-year-old girl who was infected with SARS-CoV-2 died after developing an extremely rare condition known as acute fulminant cerebral edema (AFCE), according to pediatric neurologists who are urging colleagues to watch out for similar cases.

At least one other child in the United States has died after becoming infected with the virus and developing cerebral edema. "The rapid and devastating clinical course in both of these cases highlights the need for early recognition of a cerebral edema and AFCE as potential complications of COVID-19 in pediatric patients," the neurologists wrote.

The case was highlighted in a poster presented at the annual meeting of the Child Neurology Society and in a report published earlier this year in Child Neurology Open.

According to pediatric neurologist Timothy Gershon, MD, PhD, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the child appeared in clinic in July 2020. She had been healthy but was suffering from 1 day of fever, seizure-like activity (generalized convulsions and drooling), anorexia, and lethargy.

The girl, who was subsequently diagnosed with COVID-19, deteriorated in the hospital. "She received IV dexamethasone in attempts to reduce cerebral edema," the neurologists wrote. "Regarding immunomodulatory therapy, she received intravenous immunoglobulin (2 g/kg), anakinra, and hydrocortisone; despite approval for remdesivir and COVID-19 convalescent plasma, these were ultimately withheld due to poor prognosis."

Brain death examinations at 24 and 48 hours after cardiac arrest were consistent with brain death, they reported.

Neurologists believe the patient suffered from AFCE, "an often fatal pediatric clinical entity consisting of fever, encephalopathy, and new-onset seizures followed by rapid, diffuse, and medically-refractory cerebral edema." They add that "AFCE occurs as a rare complication of a variety of common pediatric infections, and a CNS [central nervous system] pathogen is identified in only a minority of cases, suggesting a para-infectious mechanism of edema."

Neurologists offered a case definition of the "recently recognized" AFCE earlier this year.

"This was an extremely rare rapid progression to cerebral edema. I think it was related to the patient's COVID infection, but why this patient got it and others don't is unknown," Gershon said in an interview. "The full spectrum of neurological complications of COVID were not yet known [at the time]. We didn't know, and still don't know, what the causative links are between COVID and suddenly having seizures and brain swelling."

He said he'd treat a similar patient differently now and give dexamethasone earlier in the clinical course, although "there is no data to tell us if any therapy could have reversed it." Specifically, he said, "I'd give dexamethasone at the first sign of brain involvement, using the dosing recommended for cerebral edema, and try to get the MRI earlier in the course."

Gershon and colleagues noted another case of fatal cerebral edema in a child, a 7-year-old boy who was treated in New York state. That case "shows that fatal cerebral edema may complicate pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome," they wrote.

No funding was reported, and the authors report no relevant disclosures.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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