Respiratory virus a growing threat in Ohio, doctors say

A rare respiratory illness that is landing children in the hospital has become a growing threat in Ohio, and state health officials are concerned that the state could be on the verge of an epidemic.

“We could be looking at an epidemic because we’re seeing a larger increase in hospitalizations for this respiratory illness than we would expect,” said Melanie Amato, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Health. “But we just don’t know if (EV-D68) is what it is. We believe that’s what it is, but we still need confirmation.”

Amato was referring to enterovirus D68, or EV-D68, which is suspected in a surge of pediatric emergency department visits, hospitalizations and intensive care-unit stays at children’s hospitals across the state.

The infection is typically non-lethal and many patients recover in a day or two with plenty of rest and fluids. But the sudden onset of coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing — the earmark symptoms of EV-D68 — has caused severe emotional distress for many Miami Valley parents.

Justin Kreitzer, 7, was admitted to Dayton Children’s on Monday afternoon after his mother noticed his breathing had become labored while he was taking a nap.

“He had a runny nose and a little bit of a cough Sunday evening, and when he woke up Monday morning he told me he wasn’t feeling well,” said Justin’s mother, Jessica Kreitzer. “I kept him home from school that day, and he took a nap around noon.

“While he was sleeping, I noticed his breathing was rapid and he was wheezing,” she said. “When I saw him breathing that way it was very, very upsetting.”

Justin said he was feeling “much better” Tuesday afternoon as he was waiting to be discharged from the hospital. His doctor suggested Justin stay out of school until she could see him again Monday, and gave his mother an inhaler to help Justin with his breathing, if needed.

Justin was one of 313 patients who have been admitted to Dayton Children’s for acute respiratory illness since Aug. 1, including 22 kids who were sent to the intensive-care unit, hospital officials said. By comparison, there were 118 admissions for acute respiratory illness in the same time period last year.

Doctors won’t know for sure whether the virus responsible for the surge in local hospitalizations is EV-D68 until the state health department has the results of test samples sent to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The test results are expected by the end of the week.

Ohio is one of at least 10 states where clusters of suspected EV-D68 infections are being investigated by the CDC.

And while there have been no confirmed cases in Ohio, the CDC has confirmed EV-D68 in 19 of 22 specimens from Kansas City and in 11 of 14 specimens from Chicago. Patients ranged from 6 weeks to 16 years old, and the median age was 4 to 5 years.

The demographics reported by the CDC are similar to the profile of children admitted to Dayton Children’s. The youngest patient was 2, and the oldest was 14, hospital officials said.

No suspected cases have been reported in adults, according to the CDC, which said EV-D68 affects mainly children and teens.

Locally, officials from Kettering Health Network and Premier Health — the two largest adult hospital chains in the region — both said they had seen few if any suspected cases of the virus in their hospitals.

Meanwhile, Dayton Children’s continues to see a steady flow of children with respiratory problems, said Beth Linegang, an infection preventionist at the hospital.

“Our emergency department saw 60 kids with respiratory illness last weekend alone,” Linegang said.

If the majority of the kids who hav been admitted to the hospital in recent weeks with respiratory problems are eventually diagnosed with EV-D68, they would represent more than three times the number of EV-D68 cases reported to the CDC in the past five years.

From 2009 to 2013, the CDC’s National Enterovirus Surveillance System received 79 EV-D68 reports.

While there are more than 100 types of enteroviruses, EV-D68 is rare and little is known about the particular strain, according to federal health officials.

It was first identified in 1962 in California, and until recently has been very rarely reported in the U.S.

There is no specific treatment or vaccine to fight the highly contagious virus that most often spreads through close contact with someone who is sick.

Basic hygiene, such as washing hands and using disinfectant, can help reduce the spread.

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