RSV outbreak: Parents call for more health advice as number of babies suffering from RSV skyrocket

RSV outbreak: Parents call for more health advice as number of babies suffering from RSV skyrocket
Photo credit: Getty Images

By Liu Chen of RNZ

Parents want more health advice over skyrocketing cases of a virus that is potentially deadly to young babies.

Hospitals all over the country are being overwhelmed with children suffering the flu-like Respiratory Syncytial Virus, also known as RSV. Starship in Auckland is postponing surgeries to make room for the influx, and some hospitals are limiting the visits of children to try to prevent the spread of infection.

Two weeks ago, a mother from Manurewa in South Auckland, Dagny Reyes-Garcia, rushed her eight-month-old son to the emergency department at Middlemore Hospital as her son was not taking any milk or solids.

It started with a running nose, cough and repeated high fever.

"We pleaded, we begged one of the nurses to accept my son because my son was very light already and I was panicking because he was not drinking and he had been sleeping for almost several hours. He's not waking up," she said.

The baby was admitted after an eight-hour wait. He stayed there for two nights, feeding on a tube, before being discharged.

"There were like 10 to 15 when we were in the waiting area, so when we were there I think - out of 15 - there were like eight other kids who were coughing and some of them were even... I think I remember there was a boy who was vomiting."

She said the doctor explained that her baby has got RSV but it's common and there was nothing to fear. She also said the baby has likely caught the virus from the daycare and there should be more awareness.

"I hope that MOH [Ministry of Health] or their respective health authorities would highlight to the daycares, or wherever this virus is coming from, to clean or to exercise proper cleaning processes."

Another Manurewa mother, Hulita Tomasi, said her four-month-old girl caught a bug from her two older sons and started coughing and choking on her mucus.

The girl also ended up in Middlemore ED and was diagnosed with bronchiolitis - a common outcome from RSV. Tomasi said it's heart-breaking to watch the suffering.

"A lot of common colds and other stuff can just be from touching hands or kissing and cuddling, all of it," she said.

Auckland Kindergarten Association looks after more than 100 centres and about 5000 children. Its general manager of Education and Innovation, Bram Kukler, said the attendance rate is much lower than previous years.

"We certainly have seen an increase in the number of children that are absent over the last week or so and we've got a couple of confirmed cases where parents have informed us that their children had a confirmed case of RSV."

Kukler said the Ministry of Education has sent out information on RSV and his organisation is watching the situation with interest.

Director of Provider Services at Auckland District Health Board, Dr Mike Shepherd, said Starship Hospital is seeing record numbers of tamariki in its Emergency Department, with many presenting with winter respiratory illnesses.

"To prevent the spread of infection within the hospital, we're having to restrict the number of visitors to Starship. During this time we are limiting visitors for those staying at Starship to parents and caregivers. Tamariki under the age of 14 years (including brothers and sisters) are unable to visit tamariki staying at Starship at this time," he said.

"We are having to postpone some planned admissions to hospital for surgeries and medical procedures to make room for the increase in acute patients. We'll be in contact if your child's appointment or surgery time is changed. Please come to your appointment as scheduled unless we're in contact. We apologise to our patients and whānau and thank them for their understanding during this time."

Lakes Hospital in Rotorua is also asking child visitors to stay away.

The Auckland Regional Public Health Service advised children who are unwell with symptoms such as cough, fever, headache, sore throat, runny nose, vomiting and diarrhoea to stay home and away from others until they have been completely well for at least 24 hours.

People are also asked to cover coughs and sneeze and practise good hand hygiene.

Medical Officer of Health at Toi Te Ora Public Health, Dr Jim Miller, also advised parents to practice good nutrition including breastfeeding to boost babies' immune systems and keep houses warm and dry.

"The national and regional alert level restrictions and other physical distancing measures, as well as good hygiene practices in relation to Covid-19 since last year seem to have had a flow-on effect in preventing other respiratory infections likely including RSV.

"We may be seeing an increase in RSV and other viral infections this year as people are once again interacting in closer proximity which leads to easier transmission."