Parents: Watch for Breathing Problems From Rare Virus

Health officials are telling parents to be on the lookout for breathing problems after outbreaks of a rare respiratory virus sent hundreds of children to hospitals.

Though cases have been confirmed in just two states, Missouri and Illinois, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is investigating possible outbreaks of enterovirus D68 in another 10, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

Hospitals in Kansas City and Chicago reported an increase in severe respiratory illness among kids last month, and the CDC identified enterovirus D68 in 19 of 22 specimens from Kansas City and 11 of 14 in Chicago, Schuchat said. The ages of those infected ranged from 6 weeks to 16 years, “and well over half had a previous history of asthma and wheezing."

The CDC doesn’t know yet why EV-D68 appears to spreading so quickly this year. Lab testing has shown that the strain isn’t any different from last year’s, Schuchat said.

“The situation is evolving quickly,” Schuchat said. “The CDC and our colleagues are gathering information so we can better understand it and the illnesses caused by it. The full spectrum of illness is not well defined. We’re looking into that.”

"If your child has difficulty breathing, seek medical help.”

No fatalities have been reported to the CDC. But some children have needed to be put on ventilators to help them breathe.

Schuchat’s advice to parents: “If your child has difficulty breathing, seek medical help.”

Enteroviruses are very common, with more than 100 different types and an estimated 10 to 15 million infections occurring in the U.S. each year. There is no vaccine or specific treatment.With EV-D68 most kids just get a mild illness that is similar to the common cold, and they get better on their own.

A health alert from Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services on August 29 reported that more than 300 cases of respiratory illness had turned up in a single Kansas City hospital, although it was not clear how many cases were due to EV-D68.

At this early stage, it’s hard to get a handle on what’s happening, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

“Severe illness, with such a high rate of ICU admission as is occurring in the Midwest, really hasn’t been described before,” Adalja said. “It will be necessary to understand what’s going on with this virus now. Is it those with asthma and related conditions that are the only ones experiencing serious problems? How many people have mild infections? These are important questions that will need to be answered.”

“The vast majority of [infected children] will get better completely and in a few days be back to school as if nothing happened."

The disease isn’t limited to the Midwest, said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University.

“It’s just blossomed in the middle of the country and now it’s come to visit us in the Southeast. So it’s keeping hospitals busy.”

Given the new stats released by the CDC, “parents of children with respiratory diseases such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, and other breathing disorders should be vigilant about cold symptoms and their child and should seek the prompt advice of a physician if their child is experiencing fever, shortness of breath, wheezing, or worsening of asthma symptoms,” Adalja said. “They shouldn’t wait for the child ‘to get over it.’”

Still, Schaffner said, “the vast majority of [infected children] will get better completely and in a few days be back to school as if nothing happened. So that’s the good side.”