Since starting daycare in March, Lydia Ip’s two-year-old daughter has been diagnosed with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) at least four times, she said.
Her daughter’s most recent infection on Oct. 17 led her to spend several days at Cortellucci Vaughan Hospital in Vaughan, Ont. RSV, a common childhood infection, affects the lungs and respiratory tract, usually resulting in cold-like symptoms such as a runny nose, coughing and fever.
But the virus can cause other infections as well, such as pneumonia. This was the case for Ip’s daughter, who also suffered from an ear infection and saw her oxygen saturation level drop to 80 per cent.
“RSV actually made her more sick than COVID,” Ip told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview on Tuesday, referring to her daughter’s COVID-19 infection in April. “With RSV, her cough was much more severe to the point that she threw up … COVID didn’t bother her as much.”
Ip is one of several Canadians who reached out to CTVNews.ca to share their children’s recent experience with RSV. The emailed responses have not all been independently verified.
Cases of RSV are on the rise in Canada. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada’s latest Respiratory Virus Report, there has been a steady increase in positive RSV tests across the country since early September, particularly in Quebec.
“Respiratory syncytial virus activity (486 detections; 3.5% positive) is above expected levels for this time of year,” reads the report ending Oct. 15. Similar to the flu, RSV outbreaks tend to occur in seasonal waves that run from fall to late spring.
This comes at a time when emergency rooms across Canada are already struggling with long wait times and staff shortages. Ip said she witnessed this first-hand when she took her daughter to the hospital for a previous RSV infection last month. A lack of available pediatric beds meant her daughter would have to wait nearly 20 hours for a bed, Ip said. In the United States, a surge in RSV cases among young children is also overwhelming pediatric hospitals in Connecticut and Illinois.
According to PHAC, there is no specific treatment or vaccine for RSV. This leaves parents such as Ip worried about what subsequent infections could look like for their children.
“There isn’t much we could do, but prepare for the onset of [the] next [infection],” Ip wrote in an email to CTVNews.ca on Oct. 24. “It is such a stressful time as a parent, especially when you are so nervous not knowing when the next one will hit and how bad it will be.”
‘YOU REALLY HAVE TO JUST RIDE IT OUT’
Rebecca St. John, based in Calgary, said RSV has hit her youngest of three children particularly hard. Her 18-month-old daughter is not only coughing, but experiencing fevers that last several days at a time, she said. On Oct. 21, St. John’s daughter was diagnosed with RSV by their family doctor and given antibiotics for her cough.
“It’s very concerning,” she told CTV News Toronto on Monday. “Ever since people have [started] taking their masks off [and] COVID restrictions have lifted, it’s so much worse than it was before – the cough is worse, the runny nose is worse, the congestion is so much worse.”
Her two-year-old son is also infected with RSV, St. John said, coughing to the point of throwing up. St. John said she has never seen either of her children this sick before.
The rise in RSV cases this year is being attributed to the implementation of fewer public health restrictions designed to curb the spread of COVID-19. From August 2020 to May 2021, PHAC recorded 239 confirmed cases of RSV. This was during the time when provinces and territories across Canada had imposed lockdowns, as well as mask wearing and physical distancing measures. During the 2019 to 2020 season, there were 18,860 confirmed cases of RSV.
According to experts, the lack of exposure to viruses over the last two years has made young children more vulnerable to infection.
“I think their immune system just hasn’t seen the number of viruses a typical child prior to the pandemic would have seen,” Dr. Thomas Murray, a Yale School of Medicine pediatric infectious disease specialist, told CNN.
Severe cases of RSV may require hospitalization, PHAC says, where children who are struggling to breathe may be given oxygen. But many infections end up being simple colds and usually clear up on their own after a week or two, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
So far, St. John said she has not had to take either of her children to the hospital, but she continues to use humidifiers and give them Tylenol to help clear their congestion.
“It’s really about keeping them comfortable [and] making sure they’re drinking their fluids,” St. John said. “Other than that, you really have to just ride it out.”
TREATMENT AND PREVENTION
For Monica Kapac, her son’s RSV infection came as a shock, she said.
“I knew RSV was going around, but … I just kind of figured we were probably through the worst of it,” she told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Tuesday.
What started as a simple cold turned into a high fever, Kapac said, along with shortness of breath, wheezing, vomiting and a cough. After taking him to Okotoks Health and Wellness Centre on Oct. 20, her 11-month-old son was diagnosed with RSV. From there, he was transferred to Alberta Children’s Hospital in Calgary. A few days later, her son was discharged from the hospital and his condition has since improved, she said.
According to the CDC, the best way to relieve symptoms associated with RSV infections is by taking over-the-counter pain and fever medications, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, and drinking fluids to prevent dehydration. For now, Kapac gives her son Tylenol or Advil to manage his fever, and keeps him hydrated with plenty of liquids, she said.
Her biggest advice for parents is to trust their instincts if their children are sick, and not shy away from getting them the help they need.
“Trust your gut – if something seems a little off or you’re worried about something, it’s definitely better to get it looked at,” Kapac said. “If we hadn’t taken him in, then who knows what could have happened.”
Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious disease specialist at McGill University in Montreal, said RSV is quite contagious, similar to COVID-19 and other respiratory viruses.
“We are seeing a return to what it was before the pandemic with these respiratory viruses, except it’s not just those respiratory viruses from prior to the pandemic — added to the mix now is also COVID,” Vinh told CTVNews.ca on Monday.
While the virus is common among children, it can also be contracted by adults. Deanna Kirkbride said she now has RSV after her four-year-old son became infected with the virus earlier this month. Kirkbride took her son to the Englehart and District Hospital after his fever spiked to 104 F, where he was diagnosed with RSV on Oct. 20. In addition to fever, he also has a double ear infection and a cough.
Kirkbride said she has a slight fever herself, as well as shortness of breath and fatigue.
“When something like this hits, it hit hard,” Kirkbride told CTVNews.ca in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “I’ve missed out on work for almost two weeks now.”
Her son’s condition has since improved, Kirkbride said. She continues to give him Tylenol and Advil to manage his fever, and he takes antibiotics for his ear infections.
One thing Kirkbride said she hopes to see going forward is more awareness around the virus and how to handle symptoms.
“When I posted online that I had RSV … my friends and family had no clue what it was,” Kirkbride said. “Public health should be giving out more information and being more open about [RSV].
“They’re very open about COVID [but] there’s other stuff out there that can be just as bad.”
With files from CTV National News Los Angeles Bureau Chief Tom Walters, CTV National News Correspondent Heather Wright, and CTVNews.ca Writers Michael Lee and Daniel Otis
Children’s hospital in Newfoundland and Labrador is cancelling some surgeries
A children’s hospital in the capital of Newfoundland and Labrador is cancelling some surgeries and appointments starting Monday.
Health officials say it’s due to a high level of respiratory illness.
It is unclear how many surgeries and appointments at Janeway Children’s Health and Rehabilitation Centre in St. John‘s will be affected.
Residents who are not experiencing a medical emergency are being asked to avoid visiting an emergency department.
Older adults amongst the most susceptible to RSV
TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — The risk of Respiratory Syncytial Virus, also known as RSV, typically flies under the radar when it comes to older adults.
With 10 times the amount of older adults being hospitalized for RSV than in previous years, understanding the risk is important for those who are more susceptible.
“RSV in older adults starts out with the same symptoms as younger adults. With common cold-like symptoms- nasal congestion, sniffles, low-grade temperature, sore throat, dry cough, tiredness. These symptoms will last for a few days,” Mary Derby, Nurse Manager at Pima County Health Department explained.
“However, an older adult or an adult with chronic medical conditions such as heart and lung disease- they can experience more serious symptoms, such as getting a high fever, dehydration, and real difficulty breathing.”
Derby says if these symptoms lead to extreme chest pain, loss of color in the face, or struggle to breathe- seek medical attention immediately.
It is also important for those assisting an older adult to be aware of the risk imposed on those more susceptible.
“If you’re caring for older adults, please wash your hands frequently. Watch for your own symptoms and stay away if you’re experiencing symptoms. Consider wearing a mask to protect that older adult, because these older adults do need that protection… Take it seriously,” Derby emphasized.
Upward 6,000 to 10,000 older adults die each year from RSV.
As we make our way through the holidays, be sure to stay up to date with COVID-19 and Influenza vaccines, stay home if you are not feeling well, wash your hands often and for those at higher risk, wear a fitted mask around others.
AIDS day walk in North Battleford aims to `banish that stigma’
By Julia Peterson
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
On World AIDS Day, advocates in the Battlefords gathered to raise awareness about how the virus affects people in their community, and how people can get help and treatment, if they need it.
“HIV is completely preventable in today’s society, with all the advances in medication,” said Battle River Treaty 6 Health Centre’s HIV project coordinator, Cymric Leask. “But due to a lot of intersecting factors, especially due to COVID in the past couple of years, our HIV numbers have skyrocketed.”
In 2021, more than 200 new cases of HIV were diagnosed in the province, even while testing, treatment and outreach were reduced during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Saskatchewan has the highest rate of new HIV infections in Canada, and has had the highest annual rate in the country for more than a decade.
The proportion of new HIV cases in rural areas is rising, too.
“Here up north, there are such large barriers to access to care,” said Leask. “We do have some great resources here in North Battleford but it’s still very hard to access the proper care for HIV.”
For example, getting started on HIV medication requires a visit with a communicable disease doctor, but there is no communicable disease doctor based in the Battlefords. Instead, that doctor visits the community only once every four months.
Another barrier Leask has found is that many people still have an outdated understanding of what HIV is, who is at risk and how treatment works.
“Especially here in rural areas, it’s stigmatized as something that only affects gay or bisexual men, men who have sex with men,” Leask said.
Today in Saskatchewan, men and women are diagnosed with HIV at almost equal rates, and two thirds of new cases are passed through injection drug use.
Treatments are much easier to manage than they used to be; some only involve taking one pill a day.
But the enduring stigma around HIV makes it harder for people to find community and support.
“People don’t talk about it,” said Jackie Kennedy, executive director of the Battlefords Indian and Metis Friendship Centre. “I think they’re afraid to. A lot of people don’t disclose that information (about their HIV status) because they are afraid to be judged.”
As more people continue to be diagnosed with HIV in Saskatchewan every year, groups and organizations in the Battlefords are working hard to make it easier for people to get testing, treatment, information and harm reduction supplies.
“We want to banish that stigma of how it used to be,” said Leask. “It’s not like that anymore.”
Julia Peterson is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter with THE STARPHOENIX
The LJI program is federally funded.
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