A respiratory virus is sweeping through Florida and other parts of the country, leading health experts to warn of a potential “triple outbreak” in the coming months.
Some hospitals are reporting an increase in the number of young children infected with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which is similar to the common cold. Although healthy adults and older children usually have only mild symptoms of the disease, children under 5 and others with weakened immune systems are at risk of more serious infection. .
Dr. Shelley Collins, a pediatrician and professor of pediatrics at the University of Florida College of Medicine, said that while UF Health has not seen the same increase in RSV cases as other places, there have been a noticeable increase in respiratory diseases in general such as rhinovirus and enterovirus.
“Historically, we are a bit behind the North East in terms of the number of patients with respiratory diseases, including RSV,” she said. “But we expect numbers to increase for sure, just as they see it (in the north).”
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RSV typically does not appear in most areas of Florida until January or February. This year, cases began to rise last month.
In fact, in September, the number of emergency room visits for RSV in young children was higher than in previous years, according to the Florida Department of Health.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says infants and young children with the virus may experience a decrease in appetite before any other symptoms appear, and a cough will usually develop one to three days later.
Sneezing, fever, and wheezing may also occur. In very young infants, irritability, decreased activity and/or sleep apnea may be the only symptoms of infection.
In most parts of the country, RSV typically circulates in the fall, winter, and spring, but the timing and severity of RSV season in any given community can vary from year to year.
Florida has the longest RSV season in the country, with several separate regions created by the Department of Health.
Alachua County, which is part of the North Florida region, has an RSV season that runs from September through March.
Devin Frison, chief epidemiologist with the Alachua County Health Department, said the county has fortunately not yet seen an increase in RSV cases.
“We still don’t know what the future holds, but we are keeping tabs on how many cases we see,” she said.
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Possible “triple epidemic”
Some experts fear that RSV, along with COVID and influenza, could lead to what is being called a “triple epidemic” this winter.
Collins said healthcare providers are most concerned about this triple threat occurring in people who have not been vaccinated against COVID and the flu, and that some children are already experiencing two respiratory viruses at once.
“We are already seeing children with multiple viruses,” she said. “Sometimes it’s a combination of flu and RSV, and sometimes it’s a combination of RSV and other common viruses that are in the community…which can tend to make patients a bit more sick.”
While most cases involving COVID, influenza and RSV are likely to be mild, the viruses combined could cause millions of Americans to become ill, which could overwhelm hospitals, according to a recent report from The New York Times. .
Already several children’s hospitals in the Tampa, Virginia, Maryland and Washington, DC area are overflowing with RSV patients, the Tampa Bay Times reported.
RSV was discovered in 1956 and has since been recognized as one of the most common causes of childhood illness, although annual epidemics spread across all age groups.
Specifically, in the United States, RSV most commonly causes bronchiolitis (inflammation of the small airways in the lungs) in children under the age of one and sends approximately 58,000 children under the age of 5 to hospital. each year, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. .
Why RSV is on the rise
Health experts say the lockdown during the pandemic is likely to blame for the rise in RSV.
During the prolonged lockdowns, children and adults were mostly protected from common infections, which may have been counterproductive, especially for young children.
“Since everyone was home for COVID, you didn’t have individuals outside exposed to influenza or other viruses,” Frison said. “So once people come back and interact, it’s possible you’ll get a combination of (respiratory) viruses, but that’s unpredictable at this stage.”
The CDC said that although there is currently no vaccine against RSV, such as that for influenza and COVID, researchers are developing several vaccines, monoclonal antibodies and antiviral therapies to help protect infants and young children. , pregnant women (to protect their unborn babies), and the elderly from severe RSV infection.
Like most respiratory illnesses, the virus is spread primarily through droplets from infected people.
Collins said that to help prevent the spread of RSV, healthcare providers recommend the same precautions they take with the flu and other contagious illnesses: wash your hands thoroughly and stay home if you are sick.
“If your aunt or your grandmother is sick, now is not the time to come and see your newborn baby,” she says. “Because it’s really our smallest babies who tend to get the sickest with RSV.
“Older kids can definitely (get sick too), but as you get older your airways are bigger so they tend to handle the virus better.”
Javon L. Harris is a local government and social justice reporter for The Gainesville Sun. He can be reached by phone at (352) 338-3103, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @JavonLHarris_JD.
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