COVID pandemic may have hidden significant increase in child abuse, doctors say

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UK doctors fear the COVID pandemic has hidden a significant rise in child abuse. Speaking at the UK Imaging and Oncology Congress in Liverpool, Professor Owen Arthurs (Great Ormond Street Hospital, London) called for more resources to detect abuse, particularly if future waves of COVID lead to new conditions of confinement.

Professor Arthurs said:

Unfortunately, many systems that would normally detect violence against children simply did not work during the pandemic, especially during the lockdown. Sschools were closed, meaning teachers did not come into contact with abused children, and other regular visitors to the home were limited. Families being together for longer periods of time increased exposure to abusers and potentially made it harder for a partner to report concerns. We know that violence against women has increased during the pandemic; Given the evidence of a general increase in domestic violence, as well as the disruption to reporting systems caused by COVID, it would be surprising if child abuse had not increased.”.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) reported that during the pandemic period in 2020/21, calls from adults concerned about the welfare of children increased by 23%, reaching a record high of 85,000. Additionally, they report that between April 2020 and April 2021, there was a 19% increase in reported serious injury deaths where abuse or neglect was suspected.

Extensive surveys of UK child radiologists (doctors who interpret scans such as X-rays) have been unable to prove a significant increase in child abuse during the pandemic, but as the Professor said Arthurs:

Radiologists usually only see the most severe evidence of abuse, where it may be broken bones or internal damage. However, there is a nationwide shortage of radiologists, especially pediatric radiologists, and of course many have been diverted to other priorities during the COVID pandemic. We need to make all staff caring for children aware of the need to be vigilant, especially if we face another lockdown“.

Dr Katharine Halliday, new President of the Royal College of Radiologists agreed, stating that “The 2021 Royal College of Radiologists headcount census showed an extremely serious shortfall in the number of pediatric radiologists putting the lives of vulnerable children at risk“.

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