A potentially deadly flu-like virus is expected to hit Alberta particularly hard this season, according to one local researcher.
University of Alberta virologist David Marchant said this year will be another bad one for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
“It’ll be likely another severe one like last year,” Marchant explained. “For the last three or four years, RSV has been particularly severe because we found that these rather nasty strains of RSV, that cause quite severe symptoms, have evolved as of late and they’ve just arrived on scene in Alberta.
“When these viruses arrive on scene and infect a population that isn’t previously immune to these infections, the diseases tend to be quite severe.”
RSV is common, very contagious and infects the respiratory tract of most kids before their second birthday. For most children, the infection isn’t more than a cold. But for a small group, RSV can lead to bronchiolitis, which is an inflammation of the lungs, or even pneumonia, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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In 2015/16, there were 1,363 confirmed cases of RSV in Alberta. In 2016/17 that number jumped to 3,427 cases. So far this season, 14 confirmed cases of RSV have been reported in Alberta.
“Like influenza, it’s quite prevalent during the flu season when it gets cold and rainy and snowy outside,” Marchant said. “RSV is actually more prevalent than flu a lot of the time.”
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Alberta Health Services has yet to release any information about the number of cases of influenza so far this year; that information is expected on Thursday.
The chance of severe infection is greatest for babies born prematurely, kids under two born with heart or lung disease and kids with weakened immune systems.
More symptoms to pay attention to include: trouble breathing, cough producing a yellow, green or grey mucus, unusually upset or inactive, and signs of dehydration, such as a lack of tears when crying or little to no urine in the diaper.
“RSV on its own can kill the very young. The young lungs and airways are more easy to clog up,” Marchant said. “They’re a smaller diameter and so they’re easier to clog up with the exudate, the snot, that is produced by RSV infection.”
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Marchant said children who get a severe RSV infection before age two are 10 times more likely to be diagnosed with severe asthma by the time they are 10 or 12 years old.
“In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest that severe RSV infection in infancy can lend itself to things like COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) 50 years later. So it’s important that we mount a response to RSV by doing more research.”
No vaccine currently exists for RSV. While several vaccines are in the trial stage, Marchant said the best medicine for RSV is prevention.
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The virologist suggests preventing the spread of infection by coughing and sneezing into your sleeve and keeping up with flu vaccinations.
“You don’t want to be layering an influenza infection on top of an RSV infection.”
Marchant’s team is using “next generation sequencing technology” to better understand the virus and identify the “nasty strains.” This will allow them to warn health-care professionals about particularly bad seasons so they can better prepare for the potential influx of patients.
Marchant said RSV is the leading cause of hospitalization of infants worldwide and here in Canada. RSV hospitalizations of infants alone cost the health-care system upwards of $50 million to $100 million per year, he explained.
With files from Carmen Chai, Global News.