Respiratory viruses are increasing among children, and are occurring earlier than usual; one can cause a debilitating condition

By Melissa Patrick
Kentucky Health News
With common respiratory viruses on the rise among children, doctors are concerned that the viruses are showing up earlier in this year, says Dr. Lindsay Ragsdale, chief medical officer at Kentucky Children’s Hospital.
In addition to increases of rhinovirus and enterovirus, which cause the common cold, Ragsdale said the hospital is seeing upticks in Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV, which normally shows up between November and February.”This is very unusual, compared to [a] decade’s worth of epidemiologic data,” Ragsdale said. “We normally see a winter surge in kids, and now we’re seeing it starting in July this year.”

Norton Children’s Hospital in Louisville is reporting similar unseasonable spikes in RSV, Aprile Rickert reports for WFPL, saying that the hospital has admitted 66 patients with the respiratory virus, more than double the 32 at this time last year.

These increases in respiratory viruses in children are happing all over the country, prompting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue a health advisory alerting clinicians that there has been a surge in pediatric patients with severe respiratory illness requiring hospitalization. The CDC notes a rise in three respiratory viruses: rhinovirus and enterovirus and a more severe version of enterovirus called D68 or EV-D68, which can cause a rare polio-like paralysis in children.

The vast majority of children fully recover from EV-D68, but it can result in a rare complication called acute flaccid myelitis, or AFM. “Children with AFM may have weakness in one or more limbs, difficulty walking, and pain in the neck or back. Most require hospitalization, and about half are admitted to intensive care,” write epidemiologists Katelyn Jetelina and Caitlin Rivers in Jetelina’s newsletter, Your Local Epidemiologist.

The CDC notes that outbreaks of AFM appear every two years, but it skipped 2020, likely due to efforts to prevent spread of Covid-19. But with the increase in the EV-D68 strain this year, the agency encourages clinicians to consider it as a possible cause of acute respiratory illness and to assess children for AFM.
The newsletter also included a CDC graph showing a rise in outpatient visits for respiratory illness, which includes symptoms of fever plus cough or sore throat, especially among those under age 4. “It’s normal to see an increase in cold and flu illness each year, but this is occurring ahead of the normal winter schedule,” they write.

Ragsdale said the increase in respiratory illness in children is likely because they haven’t been getting normal immune system exposures because we have been social distancing and masking during the pandemic, so now exposures are happening in a different way.

Jetelina and Rivers agreed: “The drawback is that the population immunity normally maintained through regular cold and flu seasons eroded, leaving more people (especially kids) without recent immunity.”

That said, Ragsdale stressed that most kids are pretty resilient and that the ones who need hospitalization often have an underlying lung disorder or have other health conditions that make them more fragile.

“So even though they’ve gotten these infections, the vast majority of them can stay home and just do symptomatic care,” she said.

Another concern, she said, is that this early influx of respiratory illness will overlap with the incoming flu season and a possible Covid-19 surge this winter.

“That will cause some capacity challenges . . . for our Children’s Hospital admissions,” she said. “But we are working really hard to expand to new units and to make sure that we have room for every child that needs care. . . . I am worried that we’re already seeing a high number of infections, but we’re making plans.”

Ragsdale encouraged families to seek medical care for their children with a respiratory illness if their child is dehydrated, is having trouble breathing or has prolonged fevers. Otherwise, she encouraged families to keep their child at home if they are sick, especially if they have a fever, to keep their hands washed and for the whole family to get their flu and Covid-19 vaccine.

“We do anticipate having a pretty significant flu season,” she said. “We’re glad to see the Covid numbers coming down, but again, we don’t know what’s going to happen this winter and vaccines are effective to prevent those infections.”

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