Surge in childhood respiratory viruses expected soon as pandemic safety measures fade

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Childhood respiratory illnesses have become a rarity during the coronavirus pandemic. Now, as many regions start to scale back their COVID safety restrictions, researchers say doctors should expect a sudden rise in children getting sick.

A team from the University of British Columbia report that cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are already going up in the United States and Australia. This comes as COVID-19 cases are dropping in many areas, vaccinations continue, and pandemic safety regulations end. Study authors say physicians need to prepare for this trend to appear in other countries soon, including Canada.

What is respiratory syncytial virus?

RSV affects the lower respiratory tract in patients of all ages, but is especially dangerous to infants and older adults. RSV is also the most common cause of bronchiolitis (inflammation in the small airways of the lungs) and pneumonia in U.S. babies.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were around 2.7 million cases of the illness each year among children worldwide. Prior to COVID, the virus was also the fourth most common cause of death among young children. Now, with the pandemic keeping millions indoors for over a year, researchers believe youngsters are less prepared to deal with exposure to viruses.

“The off-season resurgence in seasonal respiratory viruses now potentially poses a threat to vulnerable infants,” writes Dr. Pascal Lavoie from the BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute and the University of British Columbia in a media release.

Other viruses virtually disappeared during COVID

The team finds RSV cases almost completely vanished during the pandemic. In Canada, researchers documented just 239 cases of respiratory syncytial virus between Aug. 29, 2020 and May 8, 2021. During the previous year (Aug. 25, 2019 to May 2, 2020), Canada saw nearly 19,000 RSV cases.

Now, as COVID’s Delta variant becomes a major health issue globally, study authors say the combination of coronavirus and RSV could stretch pediatric health care resources to their limits this summer and fall. They add that most pregnant women, infants, and young children have not developed any immunity to the typical respiratory viruses that are common during a normal season. With that in mind, the team fears RSV cases will be more severe than usual.

The Canadian team urges the public to continue putting an emphasis on washing hands and basic hygiene. They also suggest that mothers of newborns opt to breastfeed whenever possible. Along with that, they urge pediatric ICUs to prepare for waves of more severe RSV cases in the coming months. Typically, researchers say, respiratory viruses spike among children during the fall.

The study appears in the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

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