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Enterovirus 68 outbreak: which kids most at risk?

A sudden surge in pediatric emergency room visits in at least a dozen states has been linked to an uncommon respiratory virus, called Enterovirus 68, and public health officials have been scrambling to determine where it’s spreading and why it’s hitting some children harder than others.

“It’s not a new strain and is the same EV-68 strain identified in the US last year,” said Dr. Anne Schuchat, director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “We don’t know as much about it as other viruses.”

Symptoms begin like a cold virus with runny nose, coughing, and congestion, but some children quickly develop wheezing and breathing difficulties. More than half of the hospitalized children, ranging in age from 6 months to 16 years, have asthma or a history of wheezing, Schuchat said during a press briefing. No deaths have been associated with the infection.

The CDC has so far confirmed a few dozen cases from specimens received from health departments in Chicago and Kansas City, but likely hundreds of children throughout the country have developed severe symptoms from the infection. Schuchat said a dozen states mainly in the Midwest and South have seen hospitalized pediatric patients that they’re testing for enterovirus.

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Enteroviruses — of which there are 100 different types — circulate in summer and fall and have been linked to respiratory infections, neurologic symptoms, and meningitis. EV-68 causes a respiratory virus and is more likely to severely sicken infants and teens, Schuchat said, though the vast majority of those infected will feel like they have a mild cold if they have any noticeable symptoms at all.

The virus likely spreads from coughing, sneezing, or touching germ-filled surfaces, so washing hands often, disinfecting surfaces, and avoiding close contact with those who are sick can help prevent its spread, the CDC says on its website. ”It’s also important that asthma be well treated and controlled,” Schuchat said.

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Parents should be on the lookout for warning signs like wheezing or breathing difficulties in children with respiratory infections, and should seek immediate medical care if such symptoms occur. Otherwise, they should treat any suspected EV-68 infection as they would any other cold, she advised, treating symptoms like fever with acetaminophen, fluids, and bed rest.

Antiviral medications won’t work against EV-68, but symptoms usually resolve on their own within a week or two.


Deborah Kotz can be reached at dkotz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.