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Mass. hospitals raise suspicions about enterovirus D68

Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and the Baystate Medical Center in Springfield are seeing an uptick in respiratory illnesses in young children, raising suspicions that an unusual virus spreading from the Midwest may have arrived in Massachusetts.

No cases of enterovirus D68 have been confirmed. Massachusetts health officials are awaiting results of tests sent in recent days to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Enterovirus D68 was first identified in 1962 but was rare until this year. Between mid-August and Thursday, 153 cases were confirmed in 18 states, including Connecticut and New York.

No one has died and most people have mild symptoms, like a cold: runny nose, sneezing, cough, sometimes fever and body aches. But some children, especially those with asthma, develop difficulty breathing and wheezing, occasionally bad enough to need hospitalization.

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Though it’s not a sure thing, the illnesses he’s seen have “all the hallmarks” of enterovirus D68, said Dr. Bernard Kinane, chief of pediatric pulmonology at Mass. General. Kinane said that other hospitals in Boston have also seen more respiratory illnesses, but Mass. General seems to be “the vanguard of the uptick,” which started about 10 days ago.

Asked if the illnesses worried him, Kinane said, “No. It’s reminiscent of a flu season for us. It doesn’t worry me as much as the flu. ... It doesn’t seem to have severe complications.”

At the Baystate Medical Center, about a week ago doctors started seeing a surge in youngsters, mostly ages 2 to 6, coming to the emergency room with respiratory symptoms -- about 35 percent to 60 percent more than at this time last year, Dr. Michael Klatte, an infectious disease specialist, said at a news conference. Most were treated in the emergency room and sent home, but a handful were admitted, usually for just a day or two, he said.

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As a precaution, the hospital has changed its visitors policy to bar anyone younger than 14 from visiting a child or new mother. There is no treatment or vaccine against enterovirus D68. Instead, the asthma symptoms are treated with oxygen and medications to dilate the bronchial tubes.

At both Baystate and Mass. General, tests have found the presence of some variety of enterovirus, but only the CDC can determine whether it is D68.


Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer