Cases of a serious respiratory illness in Far North Queensland children have more than quadrupled this year, prompting health authorities to question whether lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic have fallen by the wayside.
There have been 378 confirmed cases of Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) since January 1, compared with 88 for the whole of 2019 and 70 last year.
More than 70% have been in children under 10 years of age.
The virus generally causes a minor cold-like illness in older children and adults, but in younger children it’s a common cause of bronchiolitis.
Cairns Hospital clinical director of paediatrics, Dr Neil Archer, said it’s particularly serious for babies under three months of age or in children who have other medical issues.
“The symptoms of RSV may include a runny nose, cough, fever, sore throat, and headache but in infants they also may not feed as well, breathe more quickly or with more effort,” he said.
“A person with RSV is normally infectious from when they start to show symptoms to 7-10 days after symptoms develop.”
Childcare centres have been singled out as the main place of transmission, with good hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette important measures to prevent the spread.
“This includes washing hands regularly with soap and water after touching surfaces or after coughing or sneezing and covering the mouth and nose with an elbow when sneezing,” Dr Archer said.
“People should already be doing these to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and we saw how effective this was last year for other transmissible respiratory infections with the reduction in our RSV cases.
“It's particularly important not to send your child to day-care if they are unwell to protect the other children.”
Cairns and Hinterland Hospital and Health Services executive director of medical services, Dr Don Mackie, said the RSV outbreaks had led to record amounts of presentations at the hospital’s Emergency Department in recent weeks.
“Since the start of January, we have had 182 RSV presentations to the ED, compared to just 33 for the whole of 2020 and 27 for the whole of 2019,” he said.
“We have been able to cope with the increased demand in the short term, but we are still asking for Far North Queenslanders to be mindful of the pressure on local health services.
“If you have an emergency, please come to the ED – that’s what it’s there for.
“But if you have a non-urgent medical issue, please consider calling 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84) or seeing your local GP.”