El Paso, on alert for respiratory virus

With the Covid-19 pandemic virtually under control in the Paso del Norte region, the City of El Paso’s Department of Public Health (DPH) has issued a new health alert.

It’s called Respiratory Syncytial Syndrome – RSV by acronym in English – and it’s filling hospital beds across the country and El Paso is no exception.

El Paso Children’s Hospital (EPCH) saw a significant jump in the number of cases: 300 percent between August and October of this year.

dr. Jeffrey D. Schuster, EPCH’s medical director, explains that RSV is a common virus around the world and usually appears during the fall and winter. However, this year it arrived earlier than expected.

In light of this situation, the City of El Paso Department of Public Health (DPH) has issued a public health advisory regarding the dangers of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). The full notice can be found on EPSstrong.org under the Resident Orientation tab.

RSV is a respiratory virus that primarily affects children, but can also develop cold-like symptoms in adults.

El Paso health officials warn that RSV can be serious in some children, especially young infants, those with certain medical conditions or those born prematurely.

“What we are seeing in our city, state and country is a rapid increase in respiratory diseases, including RSV, influenza and others, which is very concerning for the coming winter season,” said Dr. Héctor Ocaranza, city and county health department.

“Prevention is key, and we’ve seen that safety measures like hand washing, staying at home, caring for others when we’re sick, and wearing a mask around those most at risk will help prevent many illnesses from these respiratory infections, Ocaranza added.

RSV infections are common in autumn and winter, but can also be present in early spring. During the Covid-19 pandemic, the pattern of infection changed a lot.

With the implementation of social distancing, face coverings and other health precautions, the community has seen a dramatic drop in RSV and flu infections. However, as restrictions have been eased, the community is now seeing a sharp increase in respiratory infections, particularly among young children.

According to Dr. Schuster, there is currently no vaccine or treatment for RSV, but premature and immunocompromised newborns can receive monthly injections of Synagis, a drug injected only during RSV season that can prevent babies from contracting the virus or getting a milder case.

“I call it an emergency,” said Dr. Juan Salazar of Connecticut Children’s Hospital, where RSV has caused patients to be moved to playrooms and other areas not normally used as beds. The institution has explored the possibility of using a National Guard field hospital, but has rejected that option for now.

Also in older adults

For adults over age 65, RSV causes 177,000 hospitalizations and 14,000 deaths annually, according to federal statistics.

For babies, breathing problems can interfere with feeding. “And that’s when we really start to worry,” said Dr. Melanie Kitagawa of Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, where more than 40 children have RSV.

“They breathe fast, they breathe deeply. We see them using their chest muscles to help them breathe,” Kitagawa said. “These are children who have difficulty taking a bottle because their breathing is difficult and they cannot coordinate both at the same time.”

The virus is taking over a very vulnerable population of infants and children who were protected from common insects during the quarantine pandemic.

Federal health officials have seen an uptick in national reports of respiratory illnesses this month, which they say is due, at least in part, to the early spread of the flu across much of the South.

Last week, more than 7,000 tests came back positive for RSV, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This is more than in previous waves.


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