The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is warning about an increase of a respiratory illness that’s linked to paralysis in kids. It’s called enterovirus D68, and the CDC says it’s currently on the rise in the U.S.
The CDC shared the news in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which points out that enterovirus D68 cases started to rise this summer after an “extended period” of a low number of cases during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The report details how, in August, doctors in several areas of the country notified the CDC of an increase in hospitalizations of kids with “severe respiratory illness” and positive results for enterovirus D68 (EV-D68). This has led to “substantial resource demands” in some hospitals and have also “coincided” with increases in acute flaccid myelitis, an uncommon but serious neurologic condition that causes the muscles and reflexes in the body to become weak.
“Ongoing surveillance for EV-D68 is critical,” the CDC says in the report.
The report comes just weeks after the CDC released a health advisory, warning doctors to be on the lookout for enterovirus D68 in patients. Here’s what you need to know about enterovirus D68, plus how concerned about it you should be.
What is enterovirus D68?
Enterovirus D68, is a respiratory infection that’s one of more than 100 illnesses called non-polio enteroviruses, according to the CDC. (Polio, the infectious disease that can cause paralysis, is also an enterovirus.)
Enterovirus D68 usually causes a mild respiratory illness like a cold, but it can also cause a serious complication called acute flaccid myelitis (AFM), which can lead to paralysis, the CDC says.
Enterovirus and enterovirus D68 usually comes in waves, causing an increase in infections every two years, per the CDC. Infections are also more likely in the summer and fall.
Enterovirus D68 symptoms
Enterovirus can cause mild symptoms, severe symptoms or no symptoms at all, the CDC says. Mild symptoms can include:
Severe symptoms may include:
If someone develops AFM from enterovirus D68, they may have the following symptoms:
Arm or leg weakness
Pain in the neck, back, arms, or legs
Difficulty swallowing or slurred speech
Difficulty moving the eyes or drooping eyelids
Facial droop or weakness
How concerned should you be about enterovirus D68?
AFM is considered a rare complication of enterovirus D68, but it happens more than most people realize. In 2014, a large outbreak of enterovirus D68 led to about 10% of people who were infected to develop AFM, per the CDC.
Increases in AFM cases have happened in 2014, 2016, and 2018 in the U.S., the CDC says, which also coincides with when there have been increases in enterovirus D68.
“AFM is a rare complication of enterovirus D68,” says Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “However, it is a severe issue when it occurs.”
AFM from enterovirus D68 is more common in kids than adults, Dr. Adalja says. “Though adults can get infected with enterovirus D68, they rarely develop AFM,” he says.
“We’ve had outbreaks in the past that haven't gotten this much attention,” Perry N. Halkitis, Ph.D., dean of the Rutgers School of Public Health, tells SELF. “Enterovirus D68 is a heightened concern right now, potentially because we have heightened concern about polio virus. But do I think it's going to become a widespread problem? No.”
Worth noting: Daniel Ganjian, M.D., a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., said his practice is “seeing a rise in the common cold and enterovirus.” But, he adds, “we are not seeing a rise in AFM.”
How to stay safe from enterovirus
Enterovirus can be tricky to avoid when it’s circulating, Dr. Adalja says. “Enteroviruses are ubiquitous and very difficult to avoid,” he points out.
Still, there are a few things you can do to lower your risk. A big one is practicing good hand hygiene, Dr. Ganjian says. Other safety tips, per the CDC:
Wash your hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds
Don’t touch your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands
Try to avoid close contact like kissing, hugging, and sharing cups or eating utensils with people who are sick
Cover your coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your upper shirt sleeve (i.e. not your hands)
Clean and disinfect frequently-touched surfaces, like toys and doorknobs. This is especially important if someone is sick.
Overall, experts say, many safety precautions that people adopted during the pandemic can help lower your risk of getting enterovirus D68. “Just keep doing what you’ve been doing,” Dr. Ganjian says.
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