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Outbreak of highly contagious virus among babies prompts warning

An outbreak of a common and highly contagious respiratory virus among babies in the area has prompted a warning from pediatricians at Oishei Children’s Hospital.

“This year, the strain is particularly bad. We’re breaking records in our emergency room and our pediatric ICU with really sick kids,” said Dr. Stephen J. Turkovich, chief medical officer. “It’s a good time to spend New Year’s Eve at home with the family.”

Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, is a common virus that generally strikes in December and January, according to Turkovich, who cited an increased amount of cases that began in September.

“Last year we admitted from 60 to 80 children at this time. As of today, we had more than 200 kids admitted with RSV. ICU usually has 20 RSV cases. This year we’ve had 60 as of November.”

Symptoms initially mimic that of a cold with coughing, congestion and fever, said Turkovich. But by the second or third day, significant coughing and wheezing may develop along with difficulty in breathing and finally decreased appetite.

“That’s when babies can get in trouble, because it’s really hard to suck on a bottle or breastfeed when you have a congested nose,” said Turkovich. “Babies younger than age 1 can develop RSV bronchiolitis, so they can become dehydrated breathing fast or use of accessory muscles to breathe, so you will see their rib area sucked in.

“Antibiotics won’t treat this, and unfortunately there is no vaccine,” Turkovich said.

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In the United States, nearly all children become infected with RSV by age 2, with 75,000 to 125,000 of them hospitalized each year. Globally, RSV affects an estimated 64 million people and causes 160,000 deaths each year, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

The virus can live on surfaces for several hours, said Turkovich. Frequent handwashing (for a full 20 seconds), and avoiding large crowds helps to prevent the spread.

Oishei Children’s Hospital responded to the outbreak by opening up additional areas to treat RSV cases, adding six more beds to the PICU as well as supplementing emergency treatment.

“We’re averaging 120 cases every 24 hours in the ER. Volume has increased dramatically, so has the wait time. Parents who bring their children to the emergency room may experience a longer wait time," Turkovich said.

“Generally, we’re seeing babies less than one year of age presenting initially with cold symptoms, but they can develop pretty significant breathing problems," said Turkovich. "RSV is the most common cause of pneumonia in kids less than a year of age.”

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