For U.S. children this flu season, there’s no scarier letters than RSV.
After two years of lying relatively dormant thanks to COVID-19 social distancing and prevention measures, Respiratory Syncytial Virus has been storming the country coast to coast. RSV, which affects the nose, throat and lungs, is the leading cause of hospitalizations among babies. This fall, the virus has been infecting young children by the millions and flooding undermanned hospitals with patients.
“South Carolina is drowning in RSV,” Dr. Elizabeth Mack of the Medical University of South Carolina in Columbia told The Associated Press.
“I’m calling it an emergency,” Dr. Juan Salazar of Connecticut Children’s Hospital, told The AP.
In Iowa, the RSV problem has reached crises status. Hospitals from Sioux City to Des Moines to Cedar Rapids to Iowa City to Davenport and Dubuque are at overflow status and have been forced to take drastic reconfiguration measures to accommodate all patients. Some hospitals have converted playrooms into patient rooms.
Statewide, 938 RSV cases had been documented by Iowa’s Respiratory Virus Surveillance Report through November 27. Usually, RSV surges don’t appear until December or January.
“We’ve seen a very unusually early and severe surge in RSV admissions,” Dr. William Ching, pediatric hospitalists at UnityPoint Health St. Luke’s Hospital in Cedar Rapids, told KCRG Television. “Kids are coming in sicker more often. We’re seeing positivity rates that are approaching 50% among viral tests that are being done in the community.”
‘Onslaught of Three Viruses’
The nationwide RSV spike is the last thing health experts wanted to see during an already very active flu season that is also seeing rising coronavirus cases. Unlike COVID and the flu, there currently is not an available vaccine to combat RSV, though University of Iowa researchers, partnering with Pfizer, are feverishly working to develop one.
“We’re facing an onslaught of three viruses – COVID, RSV and influenza. All simultaneously,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University told National Public Radio. “We’re calling this a tripledemic.”
Federal health officials attribute the spike in RSV cases to many children not being previously exposed to the virus as many families isolated and socially distanced during the heavy surge days of the COVID pandemic. Usually, nearly all U.S. children catch RSV by age 2. People are usually contagious for 3-8 days.
Babies and people with weakened immune symptoms can spread RSV for up to four weeks. Common symptoms include fever, congestion, runny nose, decreased appetite, coughing, sneezing and wheezing.
A Struggle to Breathe
RSV, which was first identified in 1956, is most dangerous to infants and older adults, who can develop serious airway blockages and lung infections. For babies, the struggle to breath can inhibit their ability to eat.
“That’s when we really start to worry,” Dr. Melanie Kitagawa of Texas Children’s Hospital-Houston told the AP.
In an average year, RSV causes up to 58,000 hospitalizations and up to 500 deaths among U.S. kids under 5. For adults 65 and older, RSV annually produces 177,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 fatalities.
And this year, RSV is running wild, targeting the most vulnerable of the U.S. population. Unfortunately, masking and social distancing are not as effective for a virus that mainly affects children.
During the calendar week of November 19, the rate of children ages 0-4 hospitalized for RSV was 36.3 per 100,000 – more than double the number at that time in November 2021. Schools are logging record absences. At least 21 schools in Kentucky alone were forced to temporarily close in early November.
A Hard-to-Contain Virus
“This is not a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic,” Dr. Pat Winokur, an infectious disease specialist and co-director of the Institute for Clinical and Translational Science at the University of Iowa, told the Des Moines Register. “It’s very difficult to ask a baby to physically distance.
“But it is possible for us to practice good handwashing and masking in public places if possible. Basically anything we can do to reduce exposure to our kids.”
For while a vaccine is still a ways away, we can take smart, effective anti-RSV measures to keep ourselves, our children and our communities safe from this cruel health threat.
The best prevention plan? Break out your COVID-19 play book.
“There are things you can do” to keep yourself safe: stay home,” particularly if you have a cold or if you have sneezing,” Dr. Anthony Fauci told CBS’ Face the Nation’s Margaret Brenna. “Wear a mask, wash your hands,” and “vaccinate for the things you can vaccinate for.”