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Pediatricians See Off-Season Spike In RSV Cases Among Kids

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There's another virus the CDC is warning Americans about - interseasonal respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV. Now, for otherwise healthy adults, RSV is usually mild and just feels like a cold. But there's an increase in the number of cases among young children. And for infants, RSV can lead to more serious conditions - bronchitis and pneumonia. The thing is, a surge like this is unheard of during warmer months. RSV usually pops up in the fall, into the winter. Joining us to discuss what doctors are seeing, Dr. Sara Goza, a pediatrician in Georgia and former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SARA GOZA: Thank you for having me.

CORNISH: Tell us when you and other pediatricians started to realize you were dealing with RSV, but more specifically, dealing with it after what is considered its typical season.

GOZA: Somewhere along May and June, all of a sudden we started seeing children coming in with viral illnesses that were not COVID. And they were very typical for RSV, especially in the younger children. And so it started, really, at an odd time for us. Usually by summer we're done with RSV.

CORNISH: I understand the numbers are higher in terms of cases and also severity. What does that look like? I don't know how it's diagnosed.

GOZA: It's diagnosed by children coming in with a runny nose and trouble breathing. So a lot of the babies under a year of age will have trouble breathing. They stop eating because they can't breathe and eat at the same time. And they're wheezing, so they're in respiratory distress. And if they're in significant respiratory distress, then they do have to be admitted to the hospital to monitor. And a lot of times they will end up in the intensive care unit for this. It's the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children under one year of age.

CORNISH: Help us understand how widespread the current surge is and what parts of the country are kind of feeling it the most.

GOZA: You know, the CDC reports that the South is seeing the highest number of cases. But anecdotally, we're hearing from members - AAP members - across the country that everybody's starting to see more respiratory syncytial virus as well as other viruses. And we think that's really related to the fact that people are getting out more, they're being together. People are wearing masks less. As the public health measures are being reduced, we will see more viruses going forward.

CORNISH: As people ease up on mask-wearing, and as we've seen kind of uneven vaccination rates around the country, what concerns do you have? As we mentioned, we're speaking to you from Georgia, and many southern states have low COVID vaccination rates.

GOZA: You know, we're very concerned that as we start to loosen up restrictions on the public health measures that we will see many other viruses come back, as well, and other illnesses that will start to spread as people are more open to being together without distancing and without wearing masks. We hope people will continue to wash their hands frequently and stay home if they're sick.

CORNISH: What is the guidance that you're offering to parents and caretakers about how much worry they should have about RSV or other kinds of respiratory illnesses as we head into the summer and fall?

GOZA: I think parents should be observant of what's going on with their children. Younger children who were at home, who were not exposed to other children during the course of the pandemic, will be at higher risk of catching these viruses as they come out. We don't know that they will be more severe, but they are at higher risk to catch them because they've not been exposed to them before, whereas normally in the course of a year children are exposed to these viruses and build up some immunity to it. Some children will not have that because they have been home and protected from these viruses for the last year.

CORNISH: Dr. Sara Goza is a pediatrician and former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics. Thank you for your time.

GOZA: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR AND 9 THEORY'S, "CHAMELEON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.