Has rare enterovirus strain arrived in Georgia?

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta is reporting an unusual surge of respiratory illnesses in children. Public health officials say it’s not yet known whether a rare enterovirus that has struck elsewhere is to blame.

Enterovirus D68 is linked to two clusters of respiratory illness among children and teenagers in Kansas City and Chicago, the CDC says. Health officials there have reported a spike in emergency room visits for severe respiratory illnesses. There have been no reported deaths.

Children's at Egleston
Children’s at Egleston

So far in Georgia, “We do not have any lab confirmation of enterovirus D68,’’ Cherie Drenzek, state epidemiologist, told the state Department of Public Health board Tuesday.

Doctors at Children’s Healthcare, though, suspect that enterovirus D68 is triggering the increase in illnesses. CDC testing on the strain here is expected soon.

So far about a dozen states, including Georgia, have reported unusually high numbers of severe respiratory infections, and the CDC is working with them to figure out if D68 is the cause.

Enteroviruses, which bring on symptoms like an intense cold, are quite common.

There are more than 100 types of enteroviruses causing about 10 million to 15 million infections in the U.S. each year, according to the CDC.

Drenzek of Public Health said that most enteroviruses cause a relatively mild illness.

What’s uncommon this time is the strain of enterovirus – and the number of hospitalizations.

“Hospitalizations are higher than would be expected at this time of year,” Dr. Anne Schuchat, head of infectious diseases for the CDC, said Monday at a press briefing.

“This is a very dynamic situation, an unusual virus, and we’re just beginning to understand it,” Schuchat said.

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta said its testing does not distinguish between rhinovirus and enterovirus, which is consistent with other children’s hospitals using the same testing panel.

CHOA diagnosed 15 to 20 children each week with rhinovirus/enterovirus during most of July and early August, its typical average during summer.

“However, beginning the second and third weeks in August, when school was back in session, we saw an average of about 100 positive laboratory test results for rhinovirus/enterovirus per week,’’ said Dr. Andi Shane, hospital epidemiologist at Children’s Healthcare. “Taking this into account, we are seeing a double to quadruple increase in the number of children with respiratory infections. Many of the children are school-age.”

The course of treatment is the same for all enterovirus cases, CHOA said.

Drenzek of Public Health said Tuesday that she believes CHOA will send specimens to the CDC for testing for enterovirus D68 this week.

“It’s difficult to know’’ whether it’s D68, she said. “With this kind of virus, this is the time of year we see their peak circulation.”

There is no vaccine for the virus.

The CDC’s Schuchat said, “If your child is having difficulty breathing, you want to get medical attention.”

To reduce the risk of infection, public health officials and CHOA urge people to wash your hands with soap and water and practice good respiratory etiquette – sneezing or coughing into a tissue and discarding the tissue into a waste receptacle that cannot be accessed by others.

Because the infection is caused by a virus, antibiotics are not effective.

CHOA advised that if your child is sick, keep him or her at home to help prevent spreading the virus.