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INDIANAPOLIS — Pediatricians are warning parents not to let their guard down as some viral illnesses like Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or RSV, are on the rise in Indiana and some other states.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently issued a warning about a rise in RSV cases across the southern U.S. It’s something health experts say is also happening in the Hoosier state.

“Due to reduced circulation of RSV during the winter months of 2020–2021, older infants and toddlers might now be at increased risk of severe RSV-associated illness since they have likely not had typical levels of exposure to RSV during the past 15 months,” read the CDC’s advisory.

The virus is typically most prevalent during the winter and early spring months and can affect a person of any age but is more likely to cause severe illness in young children and infants that contract the virus as well as older adults.

“In prior summers we really haven’t seen a lot of RSV in kids, it’s been maybe a handful over the course of an entire summer,” said Dr. Rachel Peterson, pediatric hospitalist at Riley Hospital for Children. “Now we’re seeing a handful of cases admitted to our hospital service a day, which is really abnormal for the summer time because it’s not the time we expect to see winter and fall viruses like RSV.”

Brian Dixon, Director of Public Health and Informatics at the Regenstrief Institute said, “We actually have seen emergency room rates for zero to four-year-olds skyrocket this summer. We see most people coming into Indiana emergency departments right now under the age of five and a lot of it is RSV, or should I say, most of that is RSV.”

Peterson said the most concerning symptoms occur in kids who are toddlers or younger, especially infants born prematurely and those who have chronic lung disease or chronic heart disease.

“In kids, it’s really dangerous because they don’t have the energy reserves to kind of work through a cold and sometimes that cold sort of spreads down through their lungs and creates what looks like a viral pneumonia picture.”

According to Peterson, they believe the rise in cases is related to the loosening of mask restrictions and more relaxed social distancing guidelines.

“We’ve now put ourselves back in the community without those protective barriers like distancing and masks and so we’re going to see a rise,” she shared.

“Masking and social distancing kept away other viruses in addition to coronavirus and one of those viruses was RSV,” said Peterson. “While it was present in our community, it was at a really low level and now that we’re taking off our masks and getting closer together again, even if you’ve been vaccinated, you can spread RSV to other people.”

The CDC says every year in the U.S., RSV leads to, on average, approximately 58,000 hospitalizations with between 100 and 500 deaths in children younger than 5 years old.

“RSV is actually the second leading cause of death in kids under a year of age worldwide,” said Peterson. “RSV presents a lot like other viruses, including coronavirus.”

She said symptoms include upper respiratory infection signs like nasal congestion, sneezing, coughing, and as it progresses, possible fevers could develop. Peterson said in younger infants, giving up their bottle or refusing to eat may be another sign. RSV is highly contagious and spreads like the common cold.

For Emily Glassburn’s family, they know all too well how severe the symptoms related to RSV can be.

Glassburn’s son Asher, now 6 months old, was in the hospital at Riley for about a week with COVID-19. He wasn’t home for long before he started to get sick again.

“Everything kind of happened pretty quickly. He had just gotten out of the hospital, I think maybe a couple weeks back, from recovering from COVID,” said Glassburn. “After that, we noticed his coughing was worse so we took him to Riley.”

Glassburn said her son was diagnosed with tracheomalacia, or a collapse of the airway, but that wasn’t all.

“We started seeing the symptoms like runny nose, loss of appetite,” she said, also sharing that he was sleeping a lot, rapidly breathing. When he was tested, it came back that Asher had RSV.

“It’s absolutely terrifying. It didn’t help that I’m actually expecting baby number two with a six month old.”

Glassburn said, aside from some episodes of coughing related to the tracheomalacia, Asher is feeling better and no longer has RSV or the coronavirus. “Seeing him in the hospital and with feeding tubes, on oxygen, all of that is just horrible,” she shared.

“I knew I couldn’t protect him from the world, but I didn’t really think that he would have so many illnesses at such a young age.”

Peterson said parents with young children should go about their day thinking about how to protect themselves so they don’t bring any illnesses home. That is something as simple as good hand washing and hygiene, to wearing a mask when still out in public, said Peterson.

Due to the emergence of abnormal amounts of RSV cases this summer, Riley Hospital for Children is taking steps to keep patients safe, and has expanded current NICU RSV restrictions to Maternity units at Riley and Methodist Hospitals.

Those restrictions began on Tuesday, July 13 and include:

  • Four visitors during the day. Visitors must be 18 or older (with an exception for the significant other of the patient)
  • Up to four visitors allowed to remain for labor and birth 24/7
  • One adult visitor may stay overnight with Mom/Baby and antepartum
  • Only two visitors in the room at the time after delivery of the infant. Visitors may switch out outside of the unit.

The hospital says current NICU restrictions already in place will remain the same.