“(This) could be just the tip of the iceberg in terms of severe cases.” – Mark Pallansch, virologist and director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Viral Diseases, on Enterovirus D68 (EV-D68).
On the eve of the 2014-15 American flu and cold season, doctors and health care professionals are working to get a handle on an alarming and disturbing respiratory virus that has sent over 1,000 children to hospitals throughout the country. Doctors fear the problem may quickly become a nationwide epidemic. As of Monday, Sept. 8, cases of Human Enterovirus D-68, also known as EV-D68, had been confirmed in 10 states from as far east as Georgia to the heart of the midwest in Iowa to the rocky mountains of Colorado. Each state with reported cases has contacted the CDC for help, for EV-D68’s direct target is the nation’s children. And the CDC suspects there are many active cases not yet identified in states across the country.
“Viruses don’t tend to respect borders,” ABC News Chief Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser said. “It is in only 10 states now, but it’s going to be across the country. So if your state doesn’t have it now, watch for it, it’s coming.”
The culprit is a rare respiratory illness and a little known strain of Enterovirus that hits children with asthma especially hard. EV-D68 has come out of nowhere to stun the nation’s medical professionals. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fewer than 100 cases of EV-D68 have been recorded since the virus was identified in the 1960s.
“(Doctors) have no idea why it showed up this year,” Besser said.
The scariest fact of EV-D68: There’s no vaccine. The CDC reports there is currently no specific treatment for enteroviruses.
“It’s one that we don’t know as much about as we would like,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, assistant surgeon general for the U.S. Public Health Service and the director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told CNN.
Symptoms of EV-D68 begin as the trademarks of a common cold: Sneezing, a running nose and a cough. Fortunately, this is the extent of the symptoms for most people who catch an enterovirus.
“It’s important to remember that these infections are very common,” Schuchat told CNN.
But for some patients – especially youngsters with asthma and breathing problems – EV-D68 can make breathing difficult. In severe cases, patients develop fevers, rashes and labor to breath. The virus infects the gastrointestinal tract and often spreads when children get fecal matter on their hands and then touch their mouths.
The worrisome reports from across the country has health professionals on edge.
In Kansas City, the virus is sending an average of 30 children per day at Children’s Mercy Hospital, where about 15 percent of youngsters have been placed in intensive care. The hospital has already seen almost 500 cases of EV-D68.
“It’s worse in terms of scope of critically ill children who require intensive care,” Children’s Mercy’s Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, the hospital’s division director for infectious diseases, told CNN. “I would call it unprecedented. I’ve practiced for 30 years in pediatrics, and I’ve never seen anything like this.
“We’ve had to mobilize other providers, doctors, nurses. It’s big.”
In Colorado, the Denver Post reported that more than 900 children have been admitted to Children’s Hospital Colorado emergency and urgent care locations since August 18 for treatment of severe respiratory illnesses, including enterovirus and viral infections. One 13-year-old asthmatic patient wound up in the emergency room with an emergency breathing tube just one day after exhibiting cold-like symptoms. In 24 hours, his condition deteriorated from a mild cold to a life-threatening illness.
Like other enteroviruses, EV-D68 spreads through close contact of infected individuals. The start of the 2014-15 school year served as the perfect venue for the virus to spring to life after lying dormant for decades.
Parents’ first question about EV-D68 is naturally: How do I protect my child? Here is the CDC’s recommended guidelines for EV-D68 prevention:
- Using soap and water, wash hands. Using soap and water, wash hands. Using soap and water, wash hands. Then repeat.
- Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands and avoid kissing, hugging, sharing cups or eating utensils with sick individuals. Cover your nose and mouth while coughing or sneezing.
- Disinfect your hands regularly with hand sanitizer.
- Clean and disinfect surfaces that are regularly touched by different people, like toys and doorknobs.
- Stay home from work or school if you’re feeling sick, and obtain consul from your health care provider.
Preventive measures are essential, because, EV-D68 is a disease aiming straight for America’s greatest resource: Her youth.
“That’s the scary part,” said Dr. Christine Nyquist, medical director of infection control at Children’s Hospital Colorado.