By Victoria Landers
There’s concerning news for parents across Texas: the entire state has seen a dramatic spike in the number of cases of a virus that can be life-threatening to infants and young children.
The disease is called Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), and it accounts for nearly 125,000 hospitalizations and 250 infant deaths in the United States alone each year, according to a 2014 article published in the journal Pediatrics in Review.
RSV Alert, a program that displays RSV testing information from local hospitals, says the virus reaches epidemic levels when 10 percent of children test positive. Lubbock has recently reached up to 25 percent.
Kathryn Sridaromont, an associate professor and department chairperson of the traditional undergraduate program at the Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, has had years of experience with infants diagnosed with RSV.
What distinguishes RSV from an ordinary cold is a phenomenon called “coughing paroxysms.” It means babies get so exhausted that they become hypoxic, or oxygen-deprived, and are no longer able to take in fluids.
“They behave like asthmatics during an acute asthmatic attack,” Sridaromont said. “Their elevated temperatures cause them to have to breathe sometimes greater than 60 times a minute. When you’re breathing that fast, you can’t suck or swallow to take in liquids, so they become dehydrated. And then along with it, the coughing spells can cause hypoxia and subsequently, they may become apneic, meaning they don’t breathe for long periods of time. That’s very frightening.”
She said the harsh coughing can cause an infant’s airway to become restricted.
“A baby’s airway is similar to the size of your pinky finger, and if that’s swollen, it’s like us trying to breathe through a piece of angel hair pasta,” Sridaromont said.
She said the oxygen level in human blood should be at about 95 percent or higher, even in infants. When the pulse oximeter readings drop below 90 percent, that signifies a below-normal level and should cause concern for any parent.
By the time a child is 2 years old, she said, most infants have already been exposed to the virus. The peak chance of contracting the virus occurs between the ages of 2 and 3 months.
The risk of exposure is even higher for some babies.
“The populations that are most at risk would be premature infants and those with cardiac disorders, particularly those who have oxygenation issues,” Sridaromont said. “A child is also going to be at a higher risk of exposure wherever young children and infants gather, like daycares, or if there are other siblings involved.”
Cassie Pfeiffer, a Lubbock resident and a mother of two, said both of her children were diagnosed with RSV. Her younger child’s symptoms were worse.
“My 3-year-old son caught it first, and they dismissed it as a cold,” Pfeiffer said. “The next day, my then 3-week-old daughter came down with the same thing, and that was also dismissed as a cold.”
Two days later, a fever of 100.4 F sent Pfeiffer’s newborn baby to a pediatric care center, where she was later diagnosed with RSV.
“She couldn’t breathe, she was constantly wheezing,” Pfeiffer said. “She developed a rattling congestion in her chest. I felt powerless because there was nothing that could help her. She was only 3 weeks old, so there was no medicine that we could give her.”
Pfeiffer estimated that among her friends’ children, one out of three have tested positive for RSV, and some have even been hospitalized for it.
“I really think it’s just early intervention,” Pfeiffer said. “With it being so bad in Lubbock right now, I think all parents just need to be watching for those signs, and never be afraid to call their doctor.”
Pfeiffer said her now 3-month-old daughter is still battling the infection while her son had it only briefly.
Both Pfeiffer and Sridaromont say when siblings are involved, each should be tested for the virus.
“I don’t think it should be a call whether they have it or not,” Pfeiffer said. “Again, with it being so bad in Lubbock, I think the doctors should just test every child that comes in with a cold.”
In Lubbock, the RSV season typically lasts from November through February or March. While it is a common virus, the number of those who tested positive for it in the area this year is still nearly double what is considered epidemic levels.
Sridaromont said pediatricians see the virus every year, but it does not reach epidemic levels annually.
“It’s not uncommon to have less than 10 [RSV-positive tests] per week, but once you start getting above that, or in a two-week period having 20 or more, that constitutes as being newsworthy,” Sridaromont said.
She said that although levels are slowly decreasing, it is still important to be cautious and take preventative measures.
“All parents should be aware of what RSV is and know when to call their doctor, especially those whose infant or child has a category of higher risk,” she said. “You should always be mindful.”
Since RSV is a virus rather than a bacterial infection, there’s no specific vaccine or treatment yet, but there are ways to relieve symptoms.
“Infants can’t tell you things, and their little bodies don’t have the mechanisms to fight,” Sridaromont said. “As a parent, you have to be aware of what’s going on with your child.”