Cases of dangerous respiratory virus affecting babies, small children surge

The last open room in the PICU at HSHS St. Vincent Children's Hospital awaits its next patient....
The last open room in the PICU at HSHS St. Vincent Children's Hospital awaits its next patient. Rooms don't stay open long there this winter.(WBAY)
Published: Jan. 13, 2020 at 4:52 PM CST
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A dangerous and potentially deadly respiratory virus affecting young children is surging across the state.

The virus, known as RSV, makes breathing very difficult, especially for babies, often requiring them to receive breathing treatments or be hospitalized.

Doctors say parents need to be on the lookout for symptoms as hospitals are filling up more children needing help just to breathe.

"Right now, just because it's that time of year, we're seeing a lot of kids with RSV," says Dr. John Taylor, a Prevea Health pediatric intensivist at HSHS St. Vincent Children's Hospital.

Dr. Taylor and his medical team are working hard to keep up with a rising number of young patients needing to be hospitalized.

This weekend alone, eight children were admitted with RSV.

"We're full. I've also talked with the PICUs around the state. We all communicate with each other. Every one is packed, not just in the intensive care units, but in the hospitals themselves," says Dr. Taylor.

RSV is like a bad cold to most kids, but to some babies less than a year old or kids who were born premature or with underlying heart or lung conditions, the virus is much more dangerous.

Dr. Taylor describes it as causing thick secretions their little lungs just can't handle.

"They will work harder at breathing, so they'll be using chest muscles and neck muscles to try and get every single breath in and out, with more effort than what they normally would," he describes.

Dr. Taylor, who treats children with RSV every winter, says the highly contagious virus is surging earlier than usual with 87 children treated for RSV and 30 hospitalized at St. Vincent and St. Mary's Hospitals since October.

RSV can be scary for parents, since a child's condition can deteriorate in just days or even hours.

"The biggest thing for parents to recognize is watching and seeing how they're acting, and as they start to worsen, being in contact with their medical provider," he adds.

Researchers have been working on an RSV vaccine for years, but there isn't one yet.

Dr. Taylor says there is a very expensive medication for some children who've had severe cases of RSV to try and minimize the virus in the future, adding, "It's particularly difficult because the body's ability to fight the infection is a little bit unique to this infection. Whoever gets it this year, they'll get it the next year and the next year, because the body's ability to remember that infection is poor."

To try and prevent the spread of this and other illnesses, a growing number of hospitals, including St. Vincent, have visitor restrictions in place.