A rare virus that threatens respiratory systems has sickened hundreds children in Kansas City, Mo., and and Chicago and could be responsible for far more cases in about a dozen states, national health officials said Monday.
The virus, known as Enterovirus D68, is a rare form of the virus normally associated with the common cold, Anne Schuchat, assistant surgeon general and director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said at a news conference at the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Reports of hundreds of children being infected have raised concerns, and doctors have been warned to be on the lookout for more clusters, she said. "We understand the concern about this. Severe respiratory illness is also a concern, especially when children are involved," she said.
No deaths have been reported, Schuchat said. It is unclear exactly how many children have been infected by the EV-D68 strain, which requires special testing to be identified. "Most of the runny noses out there are not going to be turning into this," she said.
EV-D68 was first identified in California in 1962, according to the CDC. Just 79 cases were reported from 2009 to 2013 in the United States.
The full danger from the virus is still being studied, but in general it has been associated with respiratory illness and some neurological conditions including meningitis and encephalitis. In the current situation, the only reported problems have been associated with the lungs, Schuchat said.
Symptoms are similar to an intense cold. But for those with asthma and other lung diseases, there can be complications that require hospitalization, she said.
On Aug. 19, the CDC said, it was notified by Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City of an increase in patients examined and hospitalized with severe respiratory illness, including some admitted to the pediatric intensive care unit. More than 500 children have been treated there.
On Aug. 23, the CDC was told by the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children's Hospital of an increase in children needing treatment there. There was no immediate overall number of children seeking treatment, but nine of the 25 patients in the pediatric intensive care unit appear to have the virus, spokeswoman Ashley M. Heher said Monday in an email. Many of the children who are getting especially sick are considered medically fragile, meaning they have other health issues that might put them at risk for complications, but there are also healthy children who are becoming ill, she said.
Based on testing, EV-D68 was identified in 19 of 22 specimens from Kansas City and in 11 of 14 specimens from Chicago. "Since these initial reports, admissions for severe respiratory illness have continued at both facilities at rates higher than expected for this time of year. Investigations into suspected clusters in other jurisdictions are ongoing," according to the CDC.
The ages of the patients ranged from about 6 weeks to 16 years, with the median age of about 4 years.
Late-summer colds are common, especially among children who are heading back to school. About 10 million and 15 million such infections are reported each year.
Officials recommend the usual common-sense precautions to avoid the virus, including washing hands and avoiding sharing utensils with those who are infected. Those who are ill are urged to stay home.
The CDC also said it is testing to see whether the virus caused respiratory illnesses reported in children in Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah.