A number of media outlets were blaring scary headlines Monday about a virus that often targets children and is now being closely monitored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in a dozen states.
But it's actually not so mysterious, nor is it new, and it is seldom fatal. In fact, this year there have been no Enterovirus D68-related fatalities, a CDC official told reporters on a conference call Monday.
Still, health officials say this type of virus is a serious concern, and they are watching it closely. Here are a few things to understand about it.
Enteroviruses are common
Generally speaking, enteroviruses – there are more than 100 different types of them – are quite common, and many people who get infected do not get sick. Those who do – infants, children and teens are most likely to feel ill – typically get symptoms similar to those of a very intense cold, which typically runs its course.
Some people, however, typically infants and people with weakened immune systems, are at risk of the virus worsening into heart or brain infections, and paralysis is possible, according to the CDC.
Enteroviruses tend to have a summer/fall season that often peaks in September, and can be easily spread when you have close contact with an infected person. You can also get infected by touching objects or surfaces that have the virus on them then touching your mouth, nose or eyes, the CDC says.
Enteroviruses cause up to 10 million to 15 million U.S. infections annually, health officials say, but the specific focus of concern in recent days – Enterovirus D68 – is rare. So far, about 12 states have contacted the CDC for help in confirming test samples as that of Enterovirus D68, Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, told reporters Monday. CNN reported that 10 of those states were: Iowa, Colorado, North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Kentucky.
Schuchat said it was too early to say whether the virus would spread to other states and how long the outbreak might last.
What has health officials worried was a sudden spike in hospitalizations, specifically in the Kansas City and Chicago areas, which reported clusters of cases in August.
Schuchat said the CDC had confirmed that 19 of 22 samples sent to the CDC from Kansas City tested positive as Enterovirus D68, as did 11 of 14 samples from Chicago. All were found in children ranging in ages from 6 weeks to 16 years, she said.
All told, at one hospital in Kansas City, Children's Mercy, about 475 children have recently been treated, about 15 percent of whom were moved to intensive care, CNN reported.
"I've practiced for 30 years in pediatrics, and I've never seen anything quite like this," Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, a director for infectious diseases at the hospital, told CNN.
Schuchat stressed that none of the cases so far this year were fatal, nor did any result in paralysis, as far as the CDC knows. There are no current data about the number of Enterovirus D68-related deaths in the U.S. in previous years, the Missouri health department noted in an Aug. 29 health alert about the latest outbreak in Kansas City.
No specific treatment
Health officials note that there are no vaccines specifically formulated to prevent Enterovirus D68 or antiviral drugs to treat it. Nor is there a specific treatment regimen for Enterovirus D68. Patients at Children's Mercy Children’s were receiving asthma medications, oxygen and intravenous fluids as needed, the Kansas City Star reported.
Schuchat stressed that one warning sign parents should look for in their children is difficulty breathing, which should prompt parents to seek immediate medical attention.
“It seems to produce illness with a more severe component (such as) difficulty breathing,” Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious diseases expert at Vanderbilt University, told NBC News in a Monday report. “But the vast majority of these kids will get better.”
Enterovirus D68 was first isolated in California in 1962, and clusters have been reported on very rare occasions since that time – just 79 cases were reported from 2009–2013, the CDC says in a new report.
There's not a lot people can do to keep Enterovirus D68 at bay beyond commonsense measures, health officials say: wash hands often with soap and water; avoid touching eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands; avoid contact with the sick; and stay home if you are feeling ill.
In this short video, Mayo Clinic Children’s Center pediatric infectious diseases specialist Dr. W. Charles Huskins talks more about Enterovirus D68. He tells parents what signs to look for and shares tips on how to prevent the spread of the virus.