Rare Virus Spurs Respiratory Illness Across U.S.: Q&A

Hundreds of American children have been seen in doctor’s offices and hospital emergency rooms with breathing problems that stem from a rare virus called Enterovirus D68. With new reports circulating that the illness has caused paralysis in some cases, parents are increasingly concerned about the potential effect on their children.

Here’s a look at what doctors know about the virus:

Q: What is Enterovirus D68?

A: The Enterovirus family of illnesses includes everything from polio to the common cold. The relatively rare D68 strain, first identified in California in 1962, is a non-polio form of the virus with symptoms that can be similar to a bad cold, including a runny nose, sneezing, coughing, muscles aches and sometimes fever.

Q: So why is EV-D68 considered so dangerous?

A: The symptoms can be severe enough at times to require hospitalization, particularly for those with asthma and other respiratory issues and in younger children. In some cases, the D68 strain has caused symptoms that include severe wheezing, difficulty breathing and blue lips. On Sept. 26, the CDC said it is investigating the strain in connection with neurological symptoms that left nine children from the Denver area with limb weakness.

Q: How common are those severe symptoms?

A: Not common at all. Most people who get the disease recover in about a week, according to Aaron Milstone, an assistant professor of infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center in Baltimore. So far, no deaths from EV-D68 have been recorded, he said.

Q: How is it spread and diagnosed?

A: EV-D68 is spread pretty much the same way as the common cold, through contaminated surfaces or the coughs and sneezes of an infected person, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most doctors are sending samples of the suspected virus to the CDC or state-run testing centers to confirm a diagnosis and track its spread. Because EV-D68 is rare, most children don’t have the chance to develop a natural immunity to it, as they do other forms of Enterovirus.

Q: How many states have reported cases of EV-D68?

A: Cases of the virus have been confirmed in 40 states and the District of Columbia.

Q: How is EV-D68 treated?

A: There is no cure or vaccine. Physicians will treat the symptoms until the immune system eliminates the virus on its own, according to Jana Shaw, a physician at Upstate Golisano Children’s Hospital in Syracuse, New York. In severe cases, care is focused on helping the patient breathe with asthma medication, steroids, oxygenation and hydration, Shaw said.

Q: What has made this outbreak unusual?

A: Doctors are seeing cases that are more severe than usual for this time of year, when hospitals treat many people with seasonal respiratory illnesses, Shaw said. In several states, health-care facilities have been overwhelmed by the number of children that need intensive care, the CDC said in a statement this month.

Q: What should people do about it?

A: The CDC recommends people take the same precautions as those to try to prevent the common cold, such as washing their hands with soap and water and avoiding touching the eyes, nose and mouth with hands that haven’t been cleaned. Additionally, people should disinfect surfaces and shouldn’t touch, kiss or share utensils with someone who is sick. Parents don’t need to take their children to the hospital if they have normal cold symptoms, according to Milstone.

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