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Respiratory Illnesses Surge in Children in U.S.

Respiratory Syncytial Virus in Children
Respiratory illnesses surge in U.S. children. Credit: NIAID CC BY 2.0 / Wikimedia Common

Multiple U.S. regions are witnessing an overwhelming surge in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) illnesses among older adults and young children. U.S. Hospitals have been put on alert in recent weeks in response to the record rise in cases related to RSV.

RSV, a common cold virus associated with severe diseases, has already reached seasonal peak levels. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cases detected by PCR tests indicate figures have tripled in the past two months. That is near last year’s statistics, which has put medical experts on notice.

Monica M. Buchanan, the senior director of strategic and enterprise communications for Connecticut Children’s Hospital told reporters, “RSV admissions have skyrocketed at Connecticut Children’s. October has been like never before for this virus.”

Children frequenting hospitals at “unprecedented” level

According to the Executive Vice President and Physician-in-Chief at Connecticut Children’s Hospital Dr. Juan Salazar, children are frequenting the hospital at an “unprecedented” level. Over the last ten days, there have been more than 100 with RSV, with many requiring intensive care and oxygen therapy.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time, I’ve been at Connecticut Children’s for 25 years, and I have never seen this level of surge — specifically of RSV — coming into our hospital,” Dr. Salazar said.

Buchanan noted however that hospital leaders have met with the Connecticut Department of Public Health and the National Guard to begin a logistic review on how to handle the crisis. At the moment, there is talk of putting a mobile field at the facility to cater to the raising numbers and with implementation pending approval.

Commenting on the field tent that is pending approvals from the Health Department, Dr. Salazar explained that “we have to be prepared in case the numbers continue to increase. So if RSV increases further and it hits us with influenza at the tail end of this … we will need additional capacity for our hospital.”

Medical personnel nevertheless expressed their concern about the unexpected and unusual  escalation of RSV at the current period. Dr. Thomas Murray, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and Associate Professor at Yale University School of Medicine said, “We used to have kind of a seasonality to different viruses.”

“Like the one right now, respiratory syncytial virus or RSV would come in December, it would go away followed by influenza, it would go away and another one. What seemed to happen with Covid is that now they’re all circulating at the same time,” he added.

Seasonal pattern of respiratory illnesses

In most parts of the US, RSV usually circulates in the fall, winter and spring. However, its timing and severity can vary year to year for some communities. According to CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund, this year’s fall and winter surge mark a return to pre-pandemic circulation patterns. Yet in 2021, RSV peaked during the summer.

Sneezing man expells salivary droplets in a large cone-shaped array. This is why should mask in allergy season. Credit: James Gathany / Public Domain

Salazar further stated that the U.S. is coming out of the pandemic period characterised by children having had less exposure to viruses. Now, it is unfortunately back with a vengeance. In addition, there is a surge of other respiratory viruses, such as the coronavirus that causes Covid-19, rhinoviruses, enteroviruses and flu, that are also generating more concern.

“I think for the next four to eight weeks, we just have to be careful,” Salazar said. He added that getting vaccinated against influenza now could help curb months of surging flu cases later.

Dr. William Schaffner, a professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases agrees, “Here we are in the middle of October, not the middle of November, we’re already seeing scattered influenza cases, even hospitalised influenza cases, around the country.”

Children urged to vaccinate

The CDC indicated in its own statement that seasonal flu activity increased early as well. There has been a rise in case numbers in Southeast and south-central regions. Those areas, in particular, have recorded the highest levels of flu.

Referring to the escalations in the reports, the CDC recommended that everyone aged 6 months and older get a flu vaccine. Dr. Salazar also urged Americans and said, “Get your kids vaccinated for influenza. This is the time you need to do it.”

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