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Virus, heavy in bay area, can hit some children hard

Doctors urge parents to watch for symptoms of RSV, a potentially life-threatening respiratory ailment.

By WES ALLISON

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 2, 2000


TAMPA -- At first, it seemed like a simple cold. Then Emily Sleavens, age 6 weeks, became dehydrated and began having trouble breathing.

"Overnight, boom! It just hit her," her mom, Doris Sleavens, said Friday evening. "I took her to the doctor the very next morning. I knew something wasn't right."

The pediatrician ran some tests and ordered her directly to the hospital. "And they said if I wasn't going directly there, they would take her by ambulance," Mrs. Sleavens said.

After five days at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, Emily now is recovering from RSV, a common but potentially dangerous respiratory virus that is making infants sick across the Tampa Bay area. Officials at St. Joseph's estimate they've had twice as many cases this November as last November, and doctors are warning parents to look out for symptoms of RSV among sickly or underweight infants, who are most at risk for serious complications.

RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, arrives en masse each fall and winter, just like the flu and other bugs. For most kids, it usually amounts to nothing more than a bad cold and goes away in a week to 10 days. Adults typically get a milder version.

But it can be life-threatening in children under 6 months old and in toddlers who were born prematurely or have chronic conditions such as asthma, cystic fibrosis or congenital heart defects. In very young babies, RSV may present itself not as a cold, but through irritability, poor feeding and labored or rapid breathing.

"If a child has a history of asthma, this really knocks them for a loop," said Dr. David Rosenberg, director of pediatric pulmonology at Tampa Children's Hospital at St. Joseph's. "The RSV itself is real devastating to them.

"If they're wheezing, coughing, breathing hard, they need to be seen immediately by their physician."

Tampa Children's Hospital at St. Joseph's admitted 147 children with RSV in November, including 10 who were admitted to the intensive care unit. One baby died.

Officials elsewhere said they're seeing no more cases than usual. All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, for instance, had admitted 64 children with RSV in November, compared with 62 in the same month last year. It tends to come in cycles, with each heavy year followed by a light one, doctors said.

Most children will have had it at least once by the time they are 3, and about 5 percent will be admitted to the hospital. People can get it over and over again, but each time the case is milder.

It is highly contagious and is transmitted like most colds. The best prevention is to wash your hands often, avoid close contact with sick people and cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough. Often, it is passed to children from adults who don't realize they have it.

Doctors recommend a vaccination only for infants with chronic lung disease or who were born a month or more prematurely. It costs $1,000 per shot, but Dr. Richard Weibley, who runs the pediatric ICU at Tampa General Hospital, noted that hospitalizing a sick child costs much more.

Although it's common, doctors say parents are surprised to hear when their children have it; most don't know what it is. Mrs. Sleavens, who lives in Lithia in southeastern Hillsborough County, said she knew about RSV only because a niece spent five days in the hospital several years ago, even though Emily was born with a variety of health problems that put her at high risk.

"Unfortunately, it can last awhile," said Dr. William Pomputius, head of pediatric infectious disease at St. Joseph's. "All winter we'll be struggling with this, very likely."

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