Is enterovirus more concerning than the flu? What parents need to know

WATCH ABOVE: The CDC has confirmed nearly 600 cases of Enterovirus D68. Most victims are kids. 

It’s a rare disease that spread like wildfire through North America. Some of its victims reported symptoms of paralysis that might be linked to the virus. Four U.S. deaths have been tied to the illness.

It’s no wonder why enterovirus D68 has parents concerned. But is it any more concerning than influenza and the flu season, which should be arriving in Canada in the coming months?

“EV-D68 is playing into that fear all parents have about something adverse happening to their children,” Dr. Gerald Evans, a Queen’s University medicine professor and director of infection control at Kingston General Hospital, told Global News.

While the virus has certainly gained notoriety, he suggests it isn’t worse than the seasonal influenza.

“Influenza is much more deadly, it affects more people and causes a lot more hospitalizations, morbidity and mortality. D68 is a small number in comparison to influenza,” Evans explained.

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READ MORE: Everything parents need to know about enterovirus symptoms, treatment

In any given year, there are somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 hospital admissions during the flu season in Canada. The deaths range between 2,000 and 8,000 annually.

It’s typically infants, seniors and anyone else with underlying health conditions who are the hardest hit, too.

In adults, it could be heart and lung problems, or even pneumonia that’s spurred on by the influenza. Kids who are hospitalized also encounter similar symptoms as enterovirus: they’ll present with trouble breathing, severe cough and wheezing.

It’s just that enterovirus carries that mystery; it has a name, so in a way it’s been turned into a villain, Evans says. The flu, on the other hand, has been on public health officials’ radar every year.

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READ MORE: Is enterovirus the culprit for paralysis symptoms in Canadian kids?

“[Influenza] doesn’t have that Armageddon-like quality that people imagine with these viruses they haven’t heard of before,” Evans told Global News. But he reminds readers, EV-D68 shouldn’t have that infamy.

Parents hear about the seasonal influenza and RSV – or respiratory syncytial virus – more so than enterovirus. It’s also baffling doctors in a number of ways, according to Dr. Karen Mossman, a McMaster University professor.

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“It’s not uncommon to get sick and some die from the flu or RSV. Enterovirus is causing symptoms we’re not used to hearing about, we don’t understand why it’s so predominant this year, we don’t understand why some people are getting very sick from it,” Mossman explained.

So far, cases have been reported across Canada – in B.C., Alberta and Ontario, for example, as well as throughout the United States.

READ MORE: Where is enterovirus D68 in Canada?

In a handful of cases across North America, kids have also reported symptoms of muscle weakness and paralysis in their limbs. Some have trouble walking, can’t move their arms above their head or move their faces.

But keep in mind, EV-D68 wasn’t confirmed in all of the patients presenting with these strange symptoms, so Evans suggests more research needs to be conducted before casting blame on enterovirus.

“It’s very possible we’re looking at coincidental things going on in a person. When a virus is raging, any other sporadic events in the background are likely to be attributed to the common thing that’s happening,” he suggested.

EV-D68 isn’t new. It was first identified in 1962. In the past few years, it’s made the rounds in the Netherlands, around Southeast Asia and into the U.S. Southwest, but this is the first time paralysis symptoms have been documented alongside it.

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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials are even investigating if EV-D68 could be linked to death in four cases.

In the case of a four-year-old boy, health officials said that EV-D68 is responsible for the death, but it’s still unclear what role the virus played in other mortalities.

In the meantime, the flu season is gearing up. It’ll typically pick up at the end of December and into January and February, according to Evans.

READ MORE: Is enterovirus D68 on Canadian health officials’ radar?

The medical community isn’t sure how enterovirus will affect the flu season: the public could be incredibly vigilant about hygiene and even roll up their sleeves to get vaccinated, ideally.

Evans suggests that EV-D68 should taper off before the flu season sets in though.

How to protect your kids from EV-D68

Enteroviruses, such as EV-D68, are related to the common cold virus and can spread from person to person through coughing and sneezing, by close contact with infected persons or by touching a contaminated surface.

The Public Health Agency of Canada says the most effective measures you can do to protect yourself and children against enteroviruses such as EV-D68 are:

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  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds
  • If soap and water are not available, use a hand sanitizer
  • Wash your hands: before and after eating, after you have been in a public place, after using the washroom, after coughing and sneezing, after touching common surfaces
  • Cough and sneeze into your arm, not your hand
  • Keep your hands away from your face
  • Keep common surface areas clean and disinfected
  • If you get sick, stay home
  • Ensure your immunizations are up to date

– With a file from Kathlene Calahan

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