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Evan Horowitz

How dangerous is this new respiratory enterovirus?

Doctors at Baystate Children's Hospital spoke during a news conference on the local impact of the Enterovirus D68.The Republican, Michael S. Gordon/Associated press

A spike in the number of children brought to local hospitals with breathing trouble suggests the fast-spreading respiratory infection called Enterovirus 68 (EV-D68) may have finally reached Massachusetts. No cases have been confirmed thus far, but the CDC is currently testing samples.

Symptoms of EV-D68 are usually mild, barely distinguishable from a common cold. However, a small percentage of kids develop intense wheezing or uncontrollable coughing — and need to be hospitalized. Here’s what you need to know.

RELATED: Boston Children’s Hospital sees uptick in respiratory illnesses

How worried should I be?

Alert, but not worried. EV-D68 is no superbug, and while there have been about 160 confirmed cases across 22 states in just the last month, no one has died from this outbreak (compare that to the flu, which causes thousands of deaths every year.)


Common symptoms of EV-D68 include runny nose, cough, fever, achiness — all standard fare for sick kids. But what makes EV-D68 more worrisome is that it can also produce some very serious symptoms, including breathing problems so severe that kids need to be put on respirators.

Who is at the highest risk?

Children under the age of 5 seem to be most vulnerable, though it also affects older kids and teenagers. The most severe cases tend to involve children with asthma and other preexisting respiratory problems. In Kansas City and Chicago — where this outbreak began — about two-thirds of those with severe symptoms had a history of asthma or wheezing.

How is it spread?

EV-D68 can be spread through direct contact, such as handshakes or shared drinks. And it can also spread through the air, propelled by coughs and sneezes. So the best protection is just good hygiene: regular hand washing, appropriate disinfecting, and teaching kids how to cough into their cough-catchers (a.k.a. elbows).

Are there any treatments?

There is no vaccine to prevent EV-D68 and no drug to attack it. Parents can treat the pain and achiness with over-the-counter medications, and for more serious cases doctors have used albuterol and supplemental oxygen.


Are local schools doing anything?

Schools can be an incubator for childhood illnesses, but they can also serve as a first line of defense. Just this morning, I got a letter from my kids’ school, emphasizing the importance of hand washing and asking parents to keep kids at home if they’re wheezing or showing signs of a more serious respiratory infection. The Boston public schools haven’t communicated directly with parents as yet, but they’ve been coordinating with the Boston Public Health Commission to ensure that school nurses have the information they need.

Where did EV-D68 come from?

The first known outbreak of EV-D68 occurred in California in 1962. In the years since, cases have been identified all over the world, from the Netherlands to the Philippines.

Will it go away?

Probably. Late summer and early fall is the peak season for this type of virus. Yet, given that this outbreak has spread farther and faster than earlier ones, it’s hard to predict exactly how long it might last.

Source: CDC

Is there anything else I should do?

If your children get sick, keep an eye on their breathing. Kids who are wheezing, breathing at an extremely rapid pace, or straining to pull in enough oxygen need to get checked out. If your child has asthma, the CDC recommends talking with a doctor and updating your “asthma action plan.”

Also, get everyone their flu shots. No, it won’t help ward off EV-D68, but flu season is coming and the flu, though more familiar, can be far more virulent.


Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the United States. He can be reached at evan.horowitz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz