Respiratory virus that's sent hundreds to the hospital isn't in Wisconsin, but doctors are ready

MILWAUKEE (WITI) -- A respiratory virus has sent hundreds of children to hospitals, and it's causing alarm across the Midwest and beyond. Ten states have contacted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for help investigating clusters of the virus that’s being blamed for the illness.

Health officials say they’re still working to figure out what’s going on.

The bug that appears to be causing most of the concern has a typically arcane name — Enterovirus EV-D68 — but many of its symptoms are very common.

Enteroviruses, which bring on symptoms like a very intense cold, aren’t unusual. They’re actually very common.

When you have a bad summer cold, often what you have is an enterovirus, said Mark Pallansch, a virologist and director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Viral Diseases.

There are more than 100 types of enteroviruses causing about 10 to 15 million infections in the United States each year, according to the CDC. They are carried in the intestinal tract and often spread to other parts of the body.

The season often hits its peak in September, as summer ends and fall begins.

So why all the concern now? What’s unusual at the moment is the high number of hospitalizations.

There aren't any cases in Wisconsin currently, but there's concern we could see cases here in the near future.

In Colorado, nearly 900 children were treated for the illness, but the good news is that it's not typically deadly.

"It can be severe in the asthmatic and the allergy kids population," Dr. Angela Tonozzi, the Director of Infection Prevention at Aurora Healthcare said.

Dr. Tonozzi says while there are no cases in Wisconsin currently, doctors here are prepared.

"This is viral respiratory season, so we prepare for Enterovirus as we do every late summer/early fall," Dr. Tonozzi said.

An analysis by the CDC showed at least 30 Kansas City children tested positive for EV-D68, Missouri health officials said.

It’s a type of enterovirus that’s uncommon, but not new.

It was first identified in the 1960s and there have been fewer than 100 reported cases since that time. But it’s possible that the relatively low number of reports might be because EV-D68 is hard to identify.

EV-D68 was seen last year in the United States and this year in various parts of the world. Over the years, clusters have been reported in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona and various countries including the Philippines, Japan and the Netherlands.

The virus can start as just a cold. Signs include coughing, difficulty breathing and in some cases a rash. Sometimes they can be accompanied by fever or wheezing.

Respiratory problems appear to the hallmark of EV-D68, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services.

“Most enteroviruses cause either a little bit of a cold or a diarrheal illness — a few cause meningitis,” said William Schaffner, head of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University. “This one is the, if you will, odd cousin. It causes prominent respiratory symptoms. Why it does that, we’re really not sure.”

"Pay attention to the symptoms that your child is having. If they`re having wheezing for the first time that`s a definite symptom you need to go and seek care for or if they`re having wheezing that just won`t go away. If you're having difficulty breathing, you might need some oxygen. You might need some fluids if you get dehydrated -- and just specialized care and monitoring," Dr. Tonozzi said.

Like other enteroviruses, the respiratory illness appears to spread through close contact with infected people. That makes children more susceptible.

There’s not a great deal you can do, health officials say, beyond taking commonsense steps to reduce the risk.

Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds — particularly after going to the bathroom and changing diapers.

Clean and disinfect surfaces that are regularly touched by different people, such as toys and doorknobs.

Avoid shaking hands, kissing, hugging and sharing cups or eating utensils with people who are sick. And stay home if you feel unwell.

There’s no vaccine for EV-D68.

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