Human coronaviruses (HCoVs) are a well-known cause of respiratory infections but their role in gastrointestinal infections is unclear. The objective of our study was to assess the significance of HCoVs in the etiology of acute gastroenteritis (AGE) in children <6 years of age.
Stool samples and nasopharyngeal (NP) swabs collected from 260 children hospitalized for AGE (160 also had respiratory symptoms) and 157 otherwise healthy control children admitted for elective surgery were tested for the presence of four HCoVs using real time RT-PCR. Registered at ClinicalTrials.gov (reg. NCT00987519).
HCoVs were more frequent in patients with AGE than in controls (23/260, 8.8% versus 4/151, 2.6%; odds ratio, OR 3.3; 95% confidence interval, CI 1.3–10.0; P = 0.01). Three of four HCoV-positive members in the control group, asymptomatic when sampled, recalled gastrointestinal or respiratory symptoms within the previous 14 days. In patients with AGE, HCoVs were present in NP samples more often than in stools (22/256, 8.6%, versus 6/260, 2.3%; P = 0.0004). In 5/6 children with HCoVs detected in stools, the viruses were also detected in NP swabs. Patients had a significantly higher probability of HCoV detection in stool (OR 4; 95% CI 1.4–15.3; P = 0.006) and also in stool and/or NP (OR 3.3, 95% CI 1.3–10.0; P = 0.01) than healthy controls. All four HCoVs species were detected in stool and NP samples.
Although HCoVs were more frequently detected in patients with AGE than in the control group, high prevalence of HCoVs in NP swabs compounded by their low occurrence in stool samples and detection of other viruses in stool samples, indicate that HCoVs probably play only a minor role in causing gastrointestinal illness in children <6 years old.