- Associated Press - Friday, October 3, 2014

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - A New Jersey child who tested positive for a virus causing severe respiratory illness across the country has died, although it’s not clear what role the virus played in the child’s death, state health officials said Friday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told New Jersey health officials that a Mercer County child tested positive for enterovirus 68 and died last week, the state Department of Health said in a news release.

Department spokeswoman Donna Lensner would not provide any other specifics about the child, although she confirmed the death is the first in New Jersey of someone who tested positive for the virus since early August, when health officials around the country noticed a spike in harsh respiratory illnesses in children. They determined enterovirus 68 was to blame.

“Our thoughts remain with the family at this very difficult time,” said New Jersey Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd. “While the child has tested positive for EV-D68, the cause of death has not yet been determined and it is unclear if EV-D68 played a direct role or was a contributing factor in his death.”

The CDC says at least four people in the U.S. infected with the virus have died, all in September, but the agency also stresses it’s not clear if the virus caused the deaths. It has sickened at least 500 people in 42 states and Washington, D.C. - almost all of them children.

The New Jersey department said the CDC also reported another confirmed case of the virus in a Middlesex County child, bringing the total count in the state to nine people who have been infected with enterovirus 68. Those cases are in Camden, Burlington, Mercer, Middlesex, Morris, Essex, Passaic and Sussex.

The enterovirus germ is not new; most people who catch the virus experience only a runny nose and low-grade fever. It was first identified in 1962 and has caused clusters of illness before.

This year, the virus has gotten more attention because it has been linked to hundreds of severe illnesses. Beginning last month, hospitals in Kansas City, Missouri, and Chicago have received a flood of children with trouble breathing.

To avoid getting the virus, health officials recommend:

- Wash hands with soap and water.

- Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

- Avoid kissing, hugging, and sharing cups, plates and utensils with people who are sick.

- Disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as toys and doorknobs, especially if someone is sick.

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