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Enterovirus D68: Good News, Bad News, What To Do

(CDC)

(CDC)

Pick your viral anxiety: Do you want to focus your media-fueled jitters on Ebola or on enterovirus D68?

Personally, even with today’s news of the first U.S. death from Ebola, I pick the enterovirus every time. For one thing, it’s actually around; it’s not a single case in Texas. But I’d prefer no anxiety at all, and the best antidote tends to be knowledge. So here are some data points:

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health fact sheet on enterovirus D68 is here and the CDC’s here. At a news conference last week, Dr. Alfred DeMaria, the department’s medical director for the Bureau of Infectious Disease, told reporters that enterovirus D68 had probably been “the predominant cause of respiratory illness over the last four weeks.”

Mostly, that meant colds, he said, and he thinks he even had the bug himself. But reports of lung ailments have “decreased significantly over the past couple of weeks,” he said, so “enterovirus 68 seems to be going away.”

Let’s hope. But what the heck? Here & Now reports that the enterovirus has been connected to five deaths nationwide, most recently of a 4-year-old in New Jersey. Of course, we know that viruses can sometimes lead to deaths by unleashing bacterial infections; flu has been known to kill dozens of American children in a bad year. But still, what to make of all the coverage of this unfamiliar virus?

I asked Dr. Ben Kruskal, chief of infectious diseases at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates. My takeaway: Yes, this is quite a bit like flu, only it’s drawing attention because it’s a virus that’s acting atypically, surprisingly. Our conversation, edited:

There are so many viruses around; why are we even hearing about this one and what should we make of the coverage?

We’re hearing about it because it is not just a strain of a virus we don’t see very often but because it’s causing unusual manifestations, and manifestations that have enough impact for us to pay attention to. It’s actually in 30 or 40 states now, and we don’t really know how widespread it is because it’s clinically not terribly distinctive. It’s a respiratory virus that looks like a lot of other respiratory viruses, including the flu and the cold viruses and a whole bunch of others. And the reason we’re paying attention is not just the fact that it’s an unusual strain — then it would be a sort of laboratory curiosity — but because it’s actually on a more severe end of the spectrum for some people.

So it’s been confirmed that it’s here in Massachusetts, and it sounds like we have had more kids being hospitalized for respiratory trouble than usual in recent weeks, right? For example, Tufts Medical Center tells us that they’ve had 54 hospital admissions of kids with repiratory problems this year, compared to 27 admissions by this date last year, and they’re tending to stay in longer and need more treatment.

I understand from Dan Slater, who’s the director of pediatrics here at Harvard Vanguard, that we went months without having to admit any kids with asthma to the hospital, and in the last few weeks we’ve had quite a few admissions.

So what’s your public health message then at this point? What do you say to parents?

It’s reasonable to think of this outbreak in most respects as being like a sort of a nastier flu season. The timing is different from the flu season but in terms of how it manifests itself, it’s pretty similar to a severe flu. Remember that the flu and this virus — like any infectious agent — have a spectrum of severity. So even though this one is on average more severe, there are still lots of people who will get just a regular old cold. And there are some people who will get kind of a nasty cold. And there are some people who will get more severe things, including asthma-like illness in people who don’t have pre-existing asthma or an exacerbation of underlying asthma in people who do.

So are there telltale symptoms to watch for? Continue reading