Rare respiratory illness sends hundreds of kids in U.S. to hospital

Hundreds of children in the U.S. Midwest have been sent to hospital after falling sick with what’s thought to be a rare respiratory virus.

Children's hospital in Kansas City sees up to 30 patients a day

Hundreds of children in the U.S. Midwest have been sent to hospital after falling sick with what’s thought to be a rare respiratory virus.

Symptoms resemble the common cold, but doctors say enterovirus D 68 seems to be sending more children to intensive care than a typical virus, particularly those with a history of asthma.

"It has been associated with clusters of respiratory viral illness, so that piece was well known," Dr. Mary Ann Jackson, division director for infectious diseases at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., told NBC News. "But the clusters that have been seen in the past and reported have been small clusters of maybe, say, 25, 30 patients, and we were seeing that many patients in a day."

More than 300 cases of the respiratory illness have been reported at Children's Mercy Hospital, and 15 per cent of those children needed treatment with intensive care, said the Missouri Department of Health.

Hospitals in St. Louis are also seeing a spike in pediatric respiratory illnesses, the department said, without providing specifics.

The virus can cause mild cold-like symptoms, but this summer's cases are unusually severe, said Mark Pallansch, director of the viral diseases division at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It's not highly unusual, but we're trying to understand what happened this year in terms of these noticeable and much larger clusters of severe respiratory disease," Pallansch said Monday.

Other states that have contacted CDC for help investigating clusters of enterovirus:

  • Missouri.
  • Colorado
  • North Carolina
  • Georgia
  • Ohio
  • Iowa
  • Illinois
  • Kansas
  • Oklahoma
  • Kentucky

Doctors say enterovirus infections often occur in summer and fall, but are often mild or lead to no symptoms.

Most children recover without lasting problems.

Warning signs include diarrhea, vomiting, respiratory illnesses, high fever, red rash and irritability.

Officials are working to confirm the type of virus. Human enterovirus was first isolated in 1962.

There is no vaccine or antiviral therapy available.

In Canada, there have been 82 cases of this enterovirus in the last 15 years, but they haven't always reported, said Dr. Caroline Quach, a pediatric infectious disease specialist with the Montreal Children's Hospital.

Quach said, as with flu or cold bugs, keeping surfaces and toys clean and hand-washing are the best ways to prevent a case of enterovirus.

With files from Reuters, The Associated Press and CBC's Pauline Dakin