A severe respiratory illness has sent hundreds of children to hospitals in 10 states in recent weeks, and CDC officials warn it may be "just the tip of the iceberg."
What is making the children sick?
CDC officials believe human enterovirus 68 (HEV68) is at the root of the mysterious epidemic; they are waiting on test results to confirm the suspicions. HEV68 has no vaccine and no specific treatment, although some experts say the whooping cough and flu vaccines may help prevent children from contracting the virus.
HEV68 is related to the rhinovirus, which is responsible for the common cold. It appears to affect mostly very young children and patients with asthma, experts say.
In the past few weeks, hundreds of HEV68 cases have been reported in Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Ohio, and Oklahoma.
Hospitals struggle with rising number of cases
Officials from Children's Hospital Colorado say they have treated more than 900 suspected HEV68 cases since Aug. 18, including 86 children who were hospitalized.
"We've been seeing a very high volume in our ED, ICU, and among hospitalized patients. The hospital is very, very full," says Christine Nyquist, the hospital's pediatric infectious disease physician. She adds, "The kids are coming in with respiratory symptoms, their asthma is exacerbated. Kids with no wheezing are having wheezing."
At another Colorado hospital, Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children, doctors say they had to put five children on ventilators, including a 13-year-old boy whose condition deteriorated from mild to life-threatening overnight. "He was OK. Then he was unconscious. It was unreal," says the boy's mother.
Meanwhile, Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus has seen about 73 patients a day with respiratory complaints—a 40% uptick since late August. Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, has seen more than 450 cases in recent weeks, and St. Louis Children's Hospital has seen a 50% increase in patients with such symptoms.
In an effort to stop the spread of the virus, Blessing Hospital in Quincy, Illinois, has barred children under 12 from visiting the facility, which saw about 70 children over the Labor Day weekend alone.
Mary Anne Jackson, Children's Mercy Hospital's director of infectious disease, says the outbreaks may have begun "right after school started. Our students start back around [Aug. 17], and I think it blew up at that point." She adds that the hospital's peak was between Aug. 21 and 30, and there has been some leveling off since.
"I would call it unprecedented. I've practiced for 30 years in pediatrics, and I've never seen anything quite like this," she says.
'The tip of the iceberg'?
Mark Pallansch, director of CDC's Division of Viral Diseases, says it may be "just the tip of the iceberg in terms of severe cases."
"Viruses don't tend to respect borders," says ABC News Chief Health and Medical Editor Richard Besser, adding, "It is only 10 states now, but it's going to be across the country. So if your state doesn't have it now, watch for it, it's coming."
Rocky Mountain physician Raju Meyappan urges parents of asthmatic children to keep albuterol inhalers "handy." He explains that asthmatic children "seem to have an abrupt onset and extremely severe reaction to this virus."
Best practicesInnovative Hand-Washing Programs
In addition, doctors urge children—especially those with asthma—to wash their hands often and avoid sharing items with sick children. Health experts also recommend disinfecting often-touched surfaces and keeping kids home if they feel unwell (Fox News, 9/7; Mohney, "Good Morning America," ABC News, 9/6; Draper, Denver Post, 9/5; Haynes, UPI, 9/6; Guarnino, Reuters, 9/5; Martinez et al., CNN, 9/8; Mohney/Schabner, "Good Morning America," ABC News, 8/7).