Relaxed COVID measures may be causing an unseasonal surge in another virus

Typically, doctors see no cases of respiratory syncytial virus, common in children, at this time of year. But cases are rising in the U.S. now.

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A sign advises shoppers to wear masks outside of a store

A sign advises shoppers to wear masks outside of a store Monday, July 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The spread of the coronavirus has been daily news for more than a year now, but another virus is leading to an unseasonably high number of illnesses in children these days.

Respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, infects the lungs and leads to cold-like symptoms. It’s a common cause of illness in children, though adults can catch it too. Typically, symptoms are mild, but infants, older people, and people with weak immune systems can get seriously ill from it.

Doctors are used to seeing children get sick from RSV, but “what’s different is when it’s happening,” said Susan Coffin, professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Usually, people catch RSV from around November to April. But from last year to this June, CHOP tracked virtually no cases, and it’s seeing an increase in them now, when there would normally be none.

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“Our numbers of RSV cases requiring hospitalization are up dramatically compared to where they typically are in the early fall,” Coffin said.

It’s when RSV moves from replicating in the nose to replicating in the lungs that children can get sick enough to need a hospital visit, she said.

Both Coffin and the National Institutes of Health say COVID-19 safety measures such as wearing masks and social distancing protected us from other viruses too. And there’s an unseasonal surge in RSV cases now, likely because places have lifted COVID-19 precautions, so that also means keeping up the same precautions can reduce the spread of RSV.

This unseasonal RSV case surge is also playing out across the southern United States, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. Some hospitals reported having pediatric intensive care units overwhelmed by the unexpected surge of RSV cases. There have also been reports of children getting sick from both RSV and COVID-19.

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