Kansas City doctors see spike in young RSV patients

Denzel Hunter Jr. cried loud enough Thursday to let everybody know he’d had just about enough of the hospital.

Music to his mother’s ears.

“He couldn’t cry like this yesterday,” Ree’Annan Williams said with a smile as she held her baby boy in the pediatric ward at the University of Kansas Hospital. “He’s not happy, but he’s better.”

Denzel arrived at the hospital Tuesday in severe respiratory distress, dehydrated and with a high fever. Diagnosis: RSV — respiratory syncytial virus, a highly contagious illness that causes lung and airway infections in infants and young children.

Denzel would have lots of company. Hospitals and health centers all over the metro area are seeing a spike in RSV patients this week. The University of Kansas Hospital has received calls for bed requests from hospitals on both sides of the state line, north and south.

“Over the past two weeks it’s really elevated, and in the last 24 hours we’ve probably seen 10 new patients,” Mike Lewis, a pediatric doctor at KU Hospital, said midafternoon Thursday. “It happens every year, but this year we’re seeing it earlier and the symptoms are more severe.”

Same story at Children’s Mercy Hospital. Christopher Harrison, the hospital’s director of infectious disease research, said that after a run of down years, this could be a big one for RSV.

“The usual peak is January, but we’re seeing 10 to 12 a night now and a higher proportion of them need hospitalization,” Harrison said Thursday.

Children’s Mercy, too, is getting referrals from all over the area.

KU has seen so many young RSV and influenza patients that some children with other conditions have been moved from the pediatric ward to the burn unit to clear space.

Typical treatment includes oxygen, IV antibiotics, other fluids and suctioning of airways.

Lewis said parents must act when they see symptoms.

“Any baby less than 6 months old with a fever must be seen,” Lewis said. “And no matter what the age, if they are having a hard time breathing, parents need to take them in.”

Failure to do so, he said, could result in respiratory failure.

According to health officials, RSV usually lasts two to eight days, but in some cases it can last up to three weeks. In children younger than 3, symptoms may include high fever, severe cough, wheezing, rapid breathing, difficulty breathing or bluish lips or fingernails due to lack of oxygen.

In older children and adults, symptoms resemble those of the common cold.

Unlike flu, there is no vaccine for RSV. It can progress quickly, so it is important for parents to carefully monitor their child and contact their pediatrician at the first sign of symptoms.

But it can be prevented. Make sure anyone who touches your baby washes his or her hands first. Try to keep your baby isolated from others who have a cold or runny nose, including older brothers and sisters. And don’t smoke around your baby or even in the next room. A completely smoke-free home is important for your child’s health.

No one knows how many cases there are locally because heath departments do not keep RSV statistics, unlike for the flu, which also is getting a head start this season.

The latest Missouri data show 830 newly confirmed flu cases statewide last week. So far this season, Missouri has had 4,336 confirmed cases. On average, the state has reports of just 279 cases by this time.

Comparable numbers aren’t available in Kansas, where flu isn’t routinely reported to the state.

Lewis described Denzel as one of the sicker RSV babies at KU Hospital.

The boy had developed a second bacterial infection. He required oxygen, aggressive IV fluids and lots of suctioning. He couldn’t be fed normally because of fear of choking.

“He’s better today,” Lewis said Thursday. “But he will be here multiple days before he goes home.”

Williams said she brought him in because “it was taking everything he had to get a breath out. When we got here, he was real quiet, just wore out.

“I’ve been so scared because he can’t tell me what’s wrong.”