Steamboat Springs A local outbreak of a potentially dangerous respiratory virus for young children has resulted in a 300 percent increase in RSV patients at Yampa Valley Medical Center this year.
Since January, 16 children all 18 months and younger have been hospitalized at the medical center with Respiratory Syncytial Virus, a potentially life-threatening respiratory infection. RSV is more susceptible to children younger than the age of 3.
The hospital has experienced several serious cases this year with young children being placed on life support and being flown to Denver, said Bill Moore, the director of respiratory therapy at the medical center.
In 2001, the hospital reported having four cases of RSV, and in 2002, seven cases were reported. Steamboat pediatrician Dr. Ron Famiglietti has sent more children to the hospital this year for RSV than in the past four years combined. And about 100 children have visited Famiglietti's office with RSV, which is four times more than the yearly average he has seen in his four years at Steamboat.
"I have never seen it this bad. And I'm not sure why it is so significantly higher. It's definitely a major concern," Famiglietti said. "Most kids have a bad cold, but a certain amount have to go to the hospital, (and) they have a tougher time."
Although Northwest Colorado typically sees an increase in RSV in late winter and early spring, Famiglietti said this year's numbers are abnormally high.
"It's an epidemic. You're seeing a rapid increase of cases," he said.
RSV is the most frequent winter cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia for infants and children younger than 1.
Only about 1 percent of young children who do get the virus are hospitalized. Moore said the number of hospital patients and those with life-threatening conditions is not high for the number of cases reported in Steamboat.
Even though adults are also susceptible to RSV, young children's symptoms are more severe because they have a harder time fighting off the virus that attacks their airways.
"When adults get RSV, it's more just like a cold. The younger you are the harder it is to deal with the infection," Famiglietti said. "(RSV) produces a lot of (mucus) that fills up the airways, and young children can't get the secretions out on their own."
Famiglietti said patients with RSV are hospitalized when they have low oxygen in their blood. Once in the hospital, patients are given more oxygen and have the virus-infected mucus suctioned out.
Studies show most children by the age of 2 have had an RSV infection, but premature newborns, infants with chronic medical problems and children with asthma are particularly at high risk.
RSV symptoms are fever, runny nose, coughing and wheezing. Famiglietti said signs that children have severe cases of RSV are difficulty in breathing, rapid breathing and retracted skin in between the ribs.
It is common for the virus to spread in the winter months when children are kept indoors, Famiglietti said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta reported that almost 100 percent of children in child care will get RSV in the first year of their lives, usually during winter outbreaks.
"It's very important for parents not to send a sick child to day care where (the virus) can spread from child to child. And that is partially why you see an epidemic," Famiglietti said.
RSV is spread through respiratory secretion, which means it can be transmitted through human contact or objects contaminated by the virus. Once infected, the person can spread the virus for three to eight days, while infants can be infectious for as long as four weeks. And the virus' incubation period is from two to eight days.
Although adult symptoms of RSV are similar to the common cold, adults are the main transmitters of the disease, Moore said. And like any cold virus, the best way to prevent its spreading is keeping the germs from infecting others.
"Adults tend to carry it around and can transmit it from person to person by touch," Moore said. "One of the best ways to stop it is by simple hand washing."