Emergency rooms in Chicago and other Midwestern cities are seeing a jump in the number of children with respiratory infections, possibly the result of a rare virus that can cause difficulty breathing but is generally not fatal, authorities said Monday.
It remains unclear how many of the infections stem from what is called enterovirus D68, or EV-D68, authorities said. Authorities have confirmed 11 cases of EV-D68 in Chicago and dozens across the Midwest, but because testing, if done at all, takes time, the real number could be higher.
In Quincy, Ill., doctors at Blessing Hospital saw over 70 patients with respiratory illnesses consistent with EV-D68 over the Labor Day weekend alone.
Most cases of the EV-D68 result in mild symptoms like a runny nose and a slight cough that resolve on their own, officials said. But the illness can progress to the point where victims have difficulty breathing.
“If (children) have cold-like symptoms and are experiencing difficulty breathing, then they [parents] definitely need to contact a health care professional,” said Dr. Tina Tan, an infectious disease specialist at Lurie Children’s Hospital.
In 10 of the 11 confirmed cases in Chicago, the victims wound up in a hospital’s intensive care unit. The potential for severe symptoms, along with the rapid spread of the relatively rare virus, has officials paying close attention.
In a national conference call with reporters Monday, Dr. Anne Schuchat of the Centers for Disease Control said experts are still working to understand the outbreak.
“We’re in a stage where it’s difficult to say just how big this is, how long it will go on for, and how widespread it will be,” said Schuchat, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.
As they wait for more definitive tests to show how much of the outbreak is the result of EV-D68, officials in Chicago said there has been a clear increase in respiratory cases at local emergency rooms.
At Comer Children’s Hospital, nine patients were in the ICU on Monday with symptoms consistent with EV-D68, said John Easton, a spokesman for University of Chicago Medicine.
At Lurie Children’s Hospital in Streeterville, doctors have seen about a 40 percent jump since early July in respiratory illnesses over the same time last year, a spokeswoman said. “The minute we discharge one patient [with respiratory symptoms], another one comes in,” said Julie Pesch, a Lurie spokeswoman.
Children with a history of asthma or wheezing are particularly at risk and have comprised a majority of confirmed cases in Chicago.
There are about 100 types of illnesses in the enterovirus family, which affect about 10 million to 15 million Americans each year, the CDC said. The illness is spread through respiratory fluids like saliva and mucus, much like more common cold and flu viruses.
To help prevent outbreaks, experts urge common-sense prevention methods like thorough hand-washing, covering one’s face when sneezing and cough and wiping down surfaces where germs may collect.