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Respiratory Virus Linked to Four Deaths in US


FILE - A sign is seen in front of the Yardville Elementary School in Hamilton Township, N.J., where a 4-year-old student died Thursday.

Some 500 people in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia currently have respiratory illnesses caused by the Enterovirus D-68. While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says EV-D68 is a very common virus, affecting about 15 million people each year in the United States, it may have mysteriously turned deadly.

Ten-year-old Emily Otrando died last week from an infection associated with the Enterovirus D68. Health officials in her home state of Rhode Island say, although the cause of death was staphylococcus aureus sepsis, cultures also showed the presence of EV-D68. But it's not clear what role, if any, the virus played in her death. Speaking at a news conference this week, Dr. Michael Fine, director of the state's Department of Health, says Otrando's condition deteriorated rapidly in just 24 hours.

“She got a little short of breath. Her parents didn't think much about it, took her to the hospital, and really by the time she got to the hospital, everything fell apart," said Fine.

Meanwhile, doctors in Colorado are trying to determine if Enterovirus D68 is to blame for at least ten cases of paralysis-like symptoms in young patients with respiratory illnesses there. In Boston, four patients exhibiting polio-like symptoms are also being tested for EV-D68 virus. The virus causes fever, coughing and other symptoms, and can lead to severe breathing troubles, especially among people who suffer from asthma.

Florida physician John Young has been talking with his patients about the outbreak. He told VOA that while EV-D68 is a lot like the common cold virus, causing a the runny nose and cough, something seems to be different this time... and it is worrisome.

“It seems to attack other parts of the body. What we are seeing is it can cause inflammation within the brain. It’s attacking the muscles, nerves, causing hopefully some temporary paralysis. It seems to be a more aggressive form of some of these viruses we’ve treated in the past," said Young.

Young says it’s not unusual for viruses to mutate over time.

“What’s scary about this one is that people who are immune compromised - and that can mean anyone with any chronic illness and genetic problems, lung problems - these people seem to be much more susceptible to this virus," he said.

Rhode Island health official Michael Fine says that Emily Otrando's death was an isolated case; it’s not something he expects to see again soon. In the meantime, he recommends additional precautions.

“Make sure your kids are washing their hands five or six times a day. Make sure that anybody with asthma has their asthma under good control," he said.

Dr. Young goes even further. He says people have to strengthen their immune systems, getting plenty of rest, and lots of vitamin D, which helps the body fight infections.