Newswise — ALBANY, N.Y. (Nov. 3, 2022) — Children’s hospitals in parts of the U.S. are seeing a surge in respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) cases, a common respiratory virus that can cause severe breathing problems for babies and older adults.

RSV is one of the many viruses that cause a cold, with typical symptoms including a runny nose, sneezing, cough, fever, wheezing and reduced appetite. Those who develop severe symptoms may experience trouble breathing. Typically associated with young children, adults can also experience severe disease. Among those most at risk: premature babies, children with chronic lung diseases and heart defects, adults aged 65 and up and adult patients who are immunosuppressed.

RSV cases normally rise in the winter months, but this year’s surge is happening early, increasing the strain on an already overburdened public health infrastructure that is still reeling from the impact of COVID-19 and staff shortages.

UAlbany experts are available to discuss RSV, including who is most at risk, why cases are on the rise early this year, how to prevent spread and disparities among disadvantaged populations. 

Danielle Wales, MD — clinical assistant professor, UAlbany School of Public Health; internal medicine and pediatrics physician at Albany Medical Center

“Prior to COVID, we would typically see RSV begin to increase around November. However, in recent years, RSV cases are occurring much earlier — including summer months and early fall. One reason for the early start could be that our immune systems are ‘out of practice’ dealing with the full complement of respiratory viruses that surround us due to reduced exposure over the past two and a half years. Plus, now that masking and social distancing are less common, viruses can spread more easily.

“Taking proper precautions can reduce the risk of infection and severe symptoms. If you have a newborn infant who was premature or may have lung disease or a heart defect, talk to your child's pediatrician about a monoclonal antibody called Synagis (palivizumab) that can help protect them from RSV. If you are sick, stay home and especially stay away from folks who are vulnerable. If you are immunosuppressed, wear a well-fitting mask when out in public in crowded spaces. It is also helpful to have a supply of home COVID tests to check that symptoms aren’t due to COVID.”

Christine Bozlakassociate professor, Dept. of Health Policy, Management and Behavior, UAlbany School of Public Health; co-director of UAlbany’s Maternal and Child Health Program

“Across the country and locally, we are seeing a concerning increase in pediatric illness from infectious diseases which are causing an increase in hospitalizations. From a public health perspective, it is critically important that we all take actions to stop the spread of illnesses to not only keep ourselves healthy, but to also reduce the spread of infections to children, and thus, alleviate the strain on our local healthcare system.

“Common public health measures, such as hand-washing, masking indoors, staying home when you're ill, and ensuring you have received your flu and COVID booster shots, can help stop the spread of infections, including infections causing these pediatric illnesses at this time." 

Tomoko Udo — associate professor, Dept. of Health Policy, Management and Behavior, UAlbany School of Public Health

“As we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, actions such as mask wearing, social distancing and more careful adherence to other hygiene measures have not only helped to prevent spread of SARS-CoV-2, but also of other common viruses, including flu and other respiratory viruses. With those measures mostly removed, many of us are vulnerable to respiratory infections. Simple yet effective ways to protect against the so-called ‘tripledemic’ of RSV, COVID and flu, as well as other infections, include: Get the appropriate vaccines, stay home when you feel sick and wear a mask if you have a cough or sniffles.”

Alvaro Carrascal, MD — assistant professor emeritus, Dept. of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, UAlbany School of Public Health

“There are disparities in RSV hospitalizations associated with disadvantaged communities. RSV hospitalizations are proportionally more frequent among children, especially those one-year-old and under, from low-income families, which includes significant proportions of African American and Latino children. Ensuring access to needed medical resources among these communities is a critical public health challenge.”