RSV not just a kids problem, doctors warn as infections surge in Canada

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As rising cases of RSV among children fill pediatric hospitals across Canada, doctors say an increasing number of older adults are contracting the contagious respiratory virus as well and falling sick.

In recent weeks, Canada has seen an uptick in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections – a common seasonal virus – as well as influenza and COVID-19 cases.

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The spread of RSV “remains above expected levels” for this time of the year, according to Health Canada’s latest report, that detected a 7.7 per cent national positivity rate and 1,661 cases for the week ending Nov. 12.

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While RSV is very contagious among kids under five years of age and can cause serious infection in babies, it’s not a disease that is exclusive to young children, said Dr. Donald Vinh, an infectious disease specialist and medical microbiologist at the McGill University Health Centre (MUHC).

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Anyone can contract RSV, and adults above the age of 65 years and those with underlying diseases are also at an increased risk of getting severely affected, he told Global News.

While children’s hospitals are currently feeling the strain of RSV and flu cases, there is concern about the negative impact of “onward transmission” to the elderly.

“We’re quite worried about this tripledemic in older adults as well – influenza, COVID-19, but also RSV,” said Dr. Samir Sinha, director of geriatrics at Sinai Health and University Health Network hospitals in Toronto.

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“And right now, we are quite concerned of what this will mean for our hospitals caring for adult patients as well,” he added.

What are the symptoms?

RSV infects the respiratory tract and, just like the common cold, symptoms typically include fever, coughing, sneezing, runny or blocked nose, sore throat, breathing problems and fatigue.

These tend to show four to six days after infection, and people infected with RSV are contagious for three to eight days, according to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevent (CDC).

Like COVID-19, RSV spreads through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It can also spread by kissing or coming in contact with surfaces contaminated with the virus.

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In infants, RSV may also cause bronchiolitis, which is an inflammation of the lungs, or pneumonia, the CDC states. And sometimes a severe RSV infection in young children can be deadly.

In fact, two per cent of all deaths in children less than five years of age is attributable to RSV, said Vinh.

Meanwhile, older children and healthy adults usually experience milder symptoms, the Canadian Lung Association says.

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Because older adults tend to have chronic health issues, there is a risk of an RSV infection triggering severe outcomes, such as heart attacks, pneumonia or even death, said Sinha.

“There’s a huge burden of RSV illness that occurs annually among older adults during cold and flu season and it is a significant cause of hospitalizations and death within this population as well.”

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The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) does not publish information on RSV cases, hospitalizations or deaths by age.

How to protect yourself

Currently, there are no vaccines or drugs to treat RSV.

To relieve symptoms, pain medications such as Advil and Tylenol may be used as well as plenty of fluids.

A number of vaccine manufacturers are rushing to create an RSV shot specifically for older adults “that hopefully will be out by next year”, said Sinha.

Vinh said the best protection against RSV is to prevent yourself from getting infected in the first place, because “there’s very little to offer” if you develop health complications.

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For now, doctors are recommending the same public health measures, such as hand washing, masking and ventilation that have been used to curb COVID-19 spread.

Sinha also advised staying up to date with available vaccinations to prevent other respiratory illnesses.

To reduce RSV complications in infants, the National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI) has recommended the use of palivizumab, which is a monoclonal antibody.

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— With files from Teresa Wright

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