The US is seeing a spurt of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases much earlier in the season than typically seen, leading medical experts to fret it could be a very rough winter ahead for the healthcare system.
RSV infections can occur all year round, but cases tend to spike from late December to mid-February in the US. This year, however, the country has already seen dramatically rising cases in recent weeks, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
This follows a high number of RSV cases this summer, which is a particularly unusual time for a surge.
RSV is a common respiratory virus that usually causes a common cold for most people, with symptoms such as a runny nose, decreases in appetite, coughing, sneezing, fever, and wheezing.
The infection can cause more serious health problems for infants and older adults. Each year in the US, an estimated 58,000 children younger than 5 years old are hospitalized due to RSV infection, according to the CDC. It’s the number one cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children under age 1 in the US.
“Young babies can start looking a bit more lethargic and have poor feeding. That can be the first signs that they are in distress. They may or may not have a fever, and they can start having some trouble breathing. Those are the early signs parents need to look for – lethargy, loss of appetite, and trouble breathing,” Dr Priya Soni, a Cedars-Sinai pediatric infectious disease specialist at Guerin Children’s, said in a statement.
Part of the reason the disease can be so severe for kids is that they have no prior immunity to the virus. By age 2, virtually all children will have typically caught an RSV infection and will have gained some antibodies against the virus.
It’s thought that the early surge of cases the US is seeing this year maybe be a knock-on effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. Since the past few years have seen social distancing and higher levels of hygiene, there are more kids who’ve never had the opportunity to catch the virus and build up antibodies. Now the hiatus is over and “normal life” is returning, the virus appears to be bouncing back with a vengeance.
With COVID-19 still putting healthcare systems under strain and flu season just around the corner, many doctors and healthcare specialists are concerned this winter might see a huge feared “triple-demic” of respiratory infections.
“Healthcare experts are worried about the confluence of RSV, flu, and COVID-19 as we move into the winter. The overlap of these three viruses, as well as others, is definitely a big concern for the next few months,” explained Soni.
“We are already seeing patients testing positive for more than one virus. We are worried about patients clogging up the Emergency Department as well as inpatient beds. One thing parents can do is make sure their children get their flu shots and COVID-19 boosters where appropriate,” added Dr Ira Wardono, a pediatric hospitalist at Providence Cedars-Sinai Tarzana Medical Center.