The Washington Post via Getty Images
An unusually early spike in respiratory syncytial virus cases in young children is pushing some hospitals to capacity.
RSV, as it is called, is a respiratory virus that manifests primarily as mild illness with cold-like symptoms in adults, but can cause pneumonia and bronchiolitis in very young children. It can be fatal in infants and young adults.
In most years, infections typically occur in late fall and winter, often overlapping flu season. But at least since last year, doctors have started seeing flare-ups beginning in the summer months.
Children’s hospitals in the Washington, DC area, including Children’s National Hospital, Inova Fairfax and Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, are at or near capacity, DCist reported.
Connecticut Children’s Hospital in Hartford has seen its pediatric inpatient beds full in recent weeks, WTNH reported. With no indication the spread is slowing, authorities are asking the National Guard and FEMA for help setting up tents to increase capacity.
In Texas, doctors at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth told ABC News they treat some 300 RSV patients a day.
“Last year, more people wore face masks and children were more likely to stay home when sick,” Dr Laura Romano said in Cook Children’s internal publication.
“This year parents are sending their children to daycare and school for the first time after two years of the pandemic. … Children who have never been exposed to respiratory viruses are getting sick,” Romano said.
Health officials in King County, Wash., are also alarmed as they brace for more cases once winter rolls around. Dr Russell Migita of Seattle Children’s Hospital told King 5 News they are seeing around 20-30 positive cases each day, adding that these are “unprecedented” numbers.
How the RSV is displayed
RSV symptoms are similar to a cold and can be harmless in adults, but the CDC says children under 5 are the most affected group. According to agency data, each year about 58,000 children in this age group are hospitalized with RSV. The second most vulnerable group are adults over the age of 65, among whom the infection causes 14,000 deaths a year.
RSV can lead to bronchiolitis, an infection that causes the airways to become inflamed and blocked with mucus, making it difficult to breathe. If the infection spreads into the lung sacs, it can lead to pneumonia.
Dr. Sara Goza, a physician and former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, spoke to NPR last year about how the infection presents in infants.
“A lot of babies under the age of one will have trouble breathing. They stop eating because they can’t breathe and eat at the same time. And they’re wheezing, so they’re in respiratory distress,” said Goza said.
Other symptoms include coughing, excessive sleep and lethargy.
There is no vaccine to prevent RSV, but doctors urge patients to get the flu shot. It doesn’t prevent infection, but it could spare people more aggressive symptoms and prevent them from seeing a doctor in already strained hospitals.