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Cases of early puberty in girls rise during COVID, doctors find

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Doctors, parents and studies are reporting a rise in such cases, with some girls getting their periods as young as 8

Prior to the pandemic, Vaishakhi Rustagi, a pediatric endocrinologist in Delhi, discovered that cases of early puberty were uncommon but not unheard of: in a typical year, she would see about 20 such patients.

Then the pandemic struck, and the cases began to pile up. Rustagi has seen more than 300 girls go through early puberty since June 2020, she claims.

According to a report published by The Washington Post, an overwhelming number of early puberty cases among girls have been reported during the pandemic.

Early puberty is uncommon, affecting approximately one in every 5,000 to 10,000 children, with cases being approximately ten times more common in girls than in boys. However, since the pandemic began, doctors and parents all over the world have noticed a significant increase in early puberty.

In some cases, girls as young as 5 have begun developing breasts and girls younger than 8 have started menstruation.

“I noticed that quite a few of my [girl patients] got their period after a lockdown,” Adiaha Spinks-Franklin, MD, a pediatrician at Texas Children’s Hospital, told the Post.

The condition, also known as precocious puberty, is defined as puberty-related changes occurring earlier than normal or expected, beginning around the ages of 8 for girls and 9 for boys. Genetic syndromes, central nervous system issues, or tumors on the ovaries, adrenal glands, pituitary gland, or brain can all contribute to it.

Pediatricians around the world have reported more cases of precocious puberty, including in the United States, India, Italy, and Turkey, according to news outlets.

A recent study discovered that between March and September 2020, more than 300 girls were referred to five pediatric endocrinology centers in Italy, compared to 140 referrals during the same time period in 2019.

In another study, a pediatric endocrinology clinic in Turkey reported 58 cases during the first year of the pandemic, compared to 66 total cases in the previous three years.

Early puberty is associated with other mental and physical issues, though in most cases, an exact cause cannot be determined. Doctors attribute the current increase to the stress of the pandemic and lockdowns, including decreased physical activity and increased consumption of unhealthy foods, both of which have been linked to an increased risk of early puberty.

“I think it’s directly related to the amount of stress that the children have gone through,” Vaishakhi Rustagi, MD, a pediatric endocrinologist in Delhi, India, told the media outlets.

Rustagi sees about 20 patients with early puberty in a typical year. She’s seen over 300 girls with the condition since mid-2020. Tumors have not been found using imaging scans or ultrasounds, and the cause is largely unknown, though Rustagi attributes it to stress and grief.

“These children have lost family members,” she explained.

As per the media outlets, early puberty is associated with an increase in depression, eating disorders, substance abuse, and antisocial behavior.

The primary treatment for the condition, a type of hormone therapy known as GnRH analogue therapy, has been shown to be very effective. However, some patients and families may choose not to seek treatment due to a lack of awareness or the stigmas associated with menstruation.

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