RSV virus outbreak: Dr Ashley Bloomfield concerned as cases rise

The country’s medical director is concerned about the alarming spike in cases of children contracting the debilitating respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

Director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield also added that concerned parents could call Healthline for help for their sick children.

Bloomfield made the comments during this afternoon’s Covid-19 press conference with Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins.

The remarks come as the country’s hospitals battle a surge in cases that has seen them postpone surgeries to create extra bed space for the sick children.

Children, babies in particular, are being hit particularly hard by respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) this year, with many ending up in Intensive Care Units or needing oxygen to help them breathe.

Some parents have described calling for an ambulance after their child’s temperature spiked to dangerous levels or as they struggled to breathe as a result of the virus.

At Middlemore Hospital a playroom has been converted into a clinical space with 11 special care baby cots to help combat the demand.

As well as noting his concern in the sharp surge in cases, Bloomfield added that he would look into being able to provide more information for parents about RSV but said Healthline staff can help them.

“We’re certainly concerned in the sharp surge in RSV cases.

“This is a nasty illness and for young babies it is very debilitating and makes them very sick.”

However, he said RSV was a “classic” virus that struck children each year, a bit like the flu.

“Once again this year, as happened last year, we’re not seeing that rise in flu cases, however we had very little RSV last year and this year we are seeing the usual increase that we had seen previously.

“There’s some speculation that may be partly exacerbated by the fact we didn’t have any last year and so there is a bigger pool of children who are susceptible to it.”

He said it was always a challenge for the country’s hospitals to deal with in winter but said they had “very good” infection prevention control measures in place to prevent any spread.

Asked about whether there was enough information circulating about RSV for parents, Bloomfield said babies and children suffered from a “whole range of illnesses”.

“Often there’s not a particular discussion about a particular virus but certainly RSV is one that’s common and it’s more common that Māori and Pasifika [children] get sick with RSV in the winter.

“If there is a sense that perhaps more information should be out there, we’d be happy to do that. I dare say that if parents ring Healthline or Plunket line they will get very good advice about what to do.”

ESR (Institute of Environmental Science and Research) data shows weekly visits to our six main hospitals for RSV has more than doubled in the last week, from 204 to 538 presentations. Only 34 cases were recorded between April and September last year.

Dr Sue Huang – a virologist who tracks flu-like illnesses – said since New Zealand opened our bubble to Australia there had been a sharp increase in the number of RSV hospital presentations.

“The week we opened the bubble we had one presentation of RSV and it’s been increasing ever since,” Huang said.

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