Rare virus suspected in surge of hospital visits

Hundreds of Miami Valley children have been hospitalized with severe respiratory illnesses in recent weeks in what is suspected to be one of the biggest outbreaks of a rare human enterovirus in recent years, state and local health officials said Monday.

Enterovirus D68 is genetically similar to the rhinovirus that causes the common cold. But the enterovirus can cause more severe asthma-like symptoms, including trouble breathing, fever, body and muscle aches, that have brought parents flooding into local emergency departments with their children.

Isiah Kobus, 8, a third-grader at Kiser Elementary School in Dayton, was among dozens of children treated at Dayton Children’s Hospital last week after he began coughing and breathing heavy with wheezing in his chest, according to his mother, Rose Kobus.

“I thought it was a bad asthma attack,” the mother said. “I took him to Children’s, and they told me there was a respiratory illness going around, and there really wasn’t anything they could do besides give him clear fluids.”

While there is no vaccine or specific treatment for enteroviruses, plenty of rest, fluids and over-the-counter medications will help ease the suffering, health officials said.

“I took Isiah home, and kept him home for three days,” his mother said.

The local health department is encouraging other parents to follow suit and keep their children at home if they’re feeling sick.

And several local school districts have reported high rates of absenteeism since the virus was first reported in the local area, said Bill Wharton, a spokesman for Public Health- Dayton & Montgomery County.

“Schools are having attendance affected by kids that are sick, but it’s difficult to know exactly what the kids are sick from,” Wharton said. “They may be sick from the enterovirus, but they could be home sick thinking they’ve got the flu or a bad cold. It’s hared to say.”

The increase in school absenteeism coincides with a dramatic surge in hospital visits at the local children’s hospital.

Since Aug. 1, Dayton Children’s Hospital has treated 300 children with confirmed rhinovirus infections — about triple the number of rhinovirus cases reported during the same period last year, said Beth Linegang, an infection preventionist at the hospital.

“We see rhinovirus about this time every year, but not to this extent,” Linegang said, adding that she thinks many of the recent cases will be identified as enterovirus D68.

But hospital officials won’t know for sure until specimens are sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for testing.

Ohio is one of 10 states that the CDC has asked to help identify the virus because of the dramatic spike in the number of patients with respiratory illnesses. The other states working with the CDC are Colorado, North Carolina, Georgia, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Kentucky.

“We have no confirmed cases yet, but we are working with local health departments who are working with their local hospitals to start sending in samples to our lab that will go to CDC,” said Melanie Amato, a spokeswoman for the state health department.

So far, Nationwide Children’s Hospital, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital in Cleveland are the only children’s hospital in Ohio that have contacted the state health department about providing specimens, Amato said.

“We hope to have results by the end of the week, and we won’t be surprised if the results test positive (for enterovirus D68),” she said.

Amato said the enterovirus was first identified decades ago, and health officials have no idea why it may have re-emerged with such vengeance.

“It’s been around since the late 60s, but for some reason it’s increasing in our area this year,” she said.

Despite the magnitude and scope of the infections, Amato said most people have no reason to be overly concerned, despite reports that the disease is potentially deadly.

“Any virus can lead to death, especially if the person has other symptoms or other illnesses,” she said. “So you can never rule that out. But it’s highly unlikely.”

Health officials advise parents and their children to follow common-sense procedures to reduce the risk of infection, such as washing hands often with soap and hot water, avoiding close contact with others, and disinfecting frequently-touched surfaces, such as toys and table tops.

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