© 2014 Roy Benaroch, MD
While Ebola makes the headlines and influenza prepares its yearly visit, two other “new” infections have been brewing this summer. We’re still got a lot to learn about “the new respiratory virus,” AKA enterovirus D68, and whatever seems to be causing cases of paralysis in 9 kids in Colorado. It’s even possible that these two infections are the same. These infections are coming to light because hospitals and public health officials stay on the lookout for new patterns of disease and infections. It’s not complicated, and it’s really not rocket science. It’s all about paying attention.
Earlier this year, hospitals first in Illinois and Missouri reported an unusual spike in ER visits and hospitalizations for respiratory symptoms, including cough, wheezing, and difficulty breathing. Often, children with this infection became very sick very rapidly, requiring hospital or ICU-level care very shortly after the onset of symptoms. Most, but not all, affected individuals had pre-existing lung problems, mostly asthma. Though routine testing for a specific agent still isn’t widely available, laboratories were able to identify a specific viral cause, an “enterovirus” named D68. That virus has been around since at least 1962, but until this year hadn’t caused widespread infections. It’s probably spread throughout the United States, and continues to contribute to many hospitalizations.
Many children (and adults) with this infection probably have mild symptoms, indistinguishable for any other viral “cold”, but some go one to become seriously ill. By the way, that’s true for almost all ordinary cold viruses—though most people sail through those infections just fine, every once in a while an ordinary cold virus makes someone very, very ill. This new enterovirus isn’t really that different from many other respiratory viruses, but it’s newly widespread and seems to have a disproportionately high rate of complications.
Or maybe it is kind of different, after all. We’re also hearing reports out of Colorado of a new kind of illness, one that looks like an infection, that’s caused flaccid paralysis in at least 9 children (actually the CDC is investigating about 23 reports, though it’s not yet clear if all of these are the same condition.) Many of those children seem to have had a respiratory illness about 2 weeks prior to the onset of the paralysis. MRI scanning is showing changes in the part of the spinal cord that controls motor functioning, and in some ways the clinical presentation and MRI findings look similar to an old infection, poliomyelitis. But specific tests for polio virus have been negative.
Here’s an theory: this respiratory virus D68 and polio virus are related—they’re both from a large, diverse family of viruses called “enterovirus.” These viruses typically cause summer infections, and different kinds of enterovirus can cause disease of the gut, lungs, liver, nerves, skin—all sorts of things. About half of the Colorado 9 children have tested positive for D68. That’s not definitive—that doesn’t mean D68 is causing the paralysis—but it’s certainly suggestive and interesting. It is possible that these two new things, the respiratory virus and the paralysis, are actually being caused by the same infection.
We’ll be learning more about these infections in the coming months. For now, the best steps available to protect your family are common sense things: wash hands, stay away from sick people, don’t touch your face, and beware of signs of bad respiratory disease. Though there are no vaccines for these new infections yet, you can prevent the return of polio and the widespread sickness of influenza with current, safe, effective immunizations. Hospitals, doctors, and staff at hospitals in the midwest did a great job in identifying these new problems and alerting public health officials to begin their investigation. Our health depends on all of us, together, paying attention to and confronting health threats like these.
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