- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 26, 2000

Parents of newborn babies particularly premature babies should be aware of a potentially dangerous virus common this time of year.
Respiratory synctial virus (RSV) is an affliction that more than 90 percent of children younger than 2 will contract, says Dr. Larry Anderson, chief of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Respiratory and Enteric Virus Branch.
For most of those young children, the virus is similar to a mild cold, with a runny nose, minor cough and fever. For those in the high-risk group, however, RSV can cause difficulty breathing, poor feeding and more complicated illnesses such as pneumonia or bronchiolitis.
Some 90,000 children nationwide the majority of whom are younger than 6 months are hospitalized annually with complications from RSV, Dr. Anderson says.
"If a baby is having trouble breathing and is wheezing and gasping, it is important to see a doctor," he says. "RSV is different from other respiratory viruses in that it affects the lower respiratory tract, which means it gets into the lungs."
A mild case of RSV should be treated like a cold, with rest and fluids to loosen mucus, Dr. Anderson says. The virus should run its course in eight to 15 days. For more severe cases, treatment includes hospitalization, intravenous hydration, inhaler treatment, oxygen therapy and, in extreme cases, a respirator, he says.
Infants are particularly at risk because their lungs are not equipped to handle the stress of RSV, says Dr. John Osborn, a pediatric pulmonologist at Inova Fairfax Hospital. Premature babies have less-developed lungs and therefore are particularly at risk, he says.
"Most children contract RSV between ages 1 and 3," Dr. Osborn says, "but it can be life-threatening under 6 months of age. The younger the child, the more significant the problem."
Adults and older children can get RSV, but the effects will not be as troublesome, Dr. Anderson says. Children also can get repeat bouts of the virus, but the symptoms will be less severe each time, he says. RSV can be serious in older children and adults who have lung disease, heart defects or compromised immune systems.
The virus is spread by contact with others or contact with contaminated surfaces, not by germs in the air, Dr. Osborn says. Because RSV is able to live on hands or surfaces up to six hours, the best deterrent to spreading the virus is frequent hand washing. Isolating children who have the virus usually is not necessary because the virus may be transmitted before they show any symptoms, he says.
For babies and children at high risk, a preventive medicine is available in a series of shots administered monthly during RSV season (typically November to April). The medicine gives RSV antibodies to the patient, which makes the symptoms of RSV less severe, thereby causing fewer serious complications, Dr. Anderson says.
"The injections are not a vaccine," he says. "The medicine is an antibody; it does not induce the body to make antibodies. It does not prevent the infection but may prevent the serious side effects."
The CDC recommends the injection only for premature infants and children with chronic lung disease.

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