RSV rates rise, pose threat to children

By Brian Ward  

“Tripledemic” is not a word anyone wanted in their lexicon, but it’s one being used to describe a triple threat of respiratory disease this winter—COVID-19, influenza, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).  

RSV is a type of respiratory infection and has been around for some time. However, there have been unusual, out-of-season spikes in the illness since COVID quarantine guidelines started to relax in 2021. While most cases of RSV usually occur in winter and fall, there’s been an unprecedented spike in cases during the summer months, NPR reports, and some healthcare facilities are reaching their capacity.  

While most adults only experience mild cold-like symptoms from RSV, it is children under the age of one who are most at risk of harm from the virus. RSV is the most common cause of pneumonia and bronchiolitis in children less than 1 year old and hospitalizes 58,000 children under five each year.  

The problem is that their lungs and muscles often lack the strength to cough or sneeze out all the mucus and secretions in their airways. 

"They have a hard time getting out that excess fluid and that's why they have trouble breathing, which then leads to problems eating and drinking," Dr. Vandana Madhavan, director of advanced pediatrics at Mass General Brigham in Boston, told NPR. 

The COVID-19 quarantine also meant children had less exposure to common viruses, hindering their immune system development.   

"We've had this whole cohort of young children who haven't had that usual constant exposure to viruses at day care or in preschool or out in the community. And so now they're getting exposed and it's hitting them really hard," Madhavan told NPR.  

While there’s no vaccine for RSV, there is a treatment available to high-risk infants called palivizumab. Otherwise, RSV precautions are the same as for COVID-19 or influenza—handwashing, disinfecting surfaces, staying hydrated, and keeping distance from those with symptoms.