RSV outbreak: Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield 'concerned' about virus' 'sharp surge' among children

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield says he's concerned about the "sharp surge" in RSV cases among children as the winter illness continues to spread.

New Zealand has recorded a rapid upsurge in cases of RSV, which is a flu-like illness characterised by a runny nose, fever, cough and short periods without breathing.

Starship Children's Hospital in Auckland is currently postponing surgeries to make room for the influx of infants suffering from the virus. Middlemore Hospital in the city's south is also struggling with a surge in admissions, while Waitakere Hospital in the west is seeing queues snaking out its doors.

Dr Bloomfield says the illness, which is "very debilitating" for young babies, can make children quite sick.

"[I'm] certainly concerned about the sharp surge in RSV cases. This is a nasty illness.

"Babies and children suffer from a whole range of illnesses and often there's no discussion about a particular virus, but certainly RSV is one that's common. It's more common that Māori and Pasifika children get sick with RSV during the winter."

RSV is a virus that surges in winter, similarly to the flu, Dr Bloomfield says. There was little RSV around last year since closed borders and lockdowns helped stop it from spreading, meaning more children could be getting infected since their immune systems aren't used to it.

"There's been some speculation that there may be a bigger pool of susceptible children because last year, the group of children generally under three years of age who get sick with RSV... that group was spared it because of the lockdowns," Dr Bloomfield says.

"This year we have got that winter peak and there is some speculation that because there's a bigger pool of children that there might be higher rates of it this year, but the size of the surge and peak in our hospitals is about what we see each year."

Dr Ashley Bloomfield.
Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Photo credit: Getty Images

Several hospitals across the North Island are restricting who can visit patients.

Hawke's Bay Hospital has restricted visitors to its maternity unit, children's ward, Special Care Baby Unit (SCBU), emergency department, and ICU to help prevent the further spread of RSV.

At Rotorua Hospital, both parents or primary caregivers of a child patient can visit during the day and just one parent can stay overnight. No other visitors, including siblings, are allowed.

Whangārei Hospital is restricting visitors to the maternity ward, SCBU, and the children's ward. Both parents and caregivers can visit during the day and one can stay overnight, but no other visitors are allowed, including siblings.

At Starship, visitors are limited to parents and caregivers. Children under 14 years old, including brothers and sisters, are not allowed to visit young patients.