Those Pesky Viruses And Their Mutating Friends

Photo of a needle going into a virus

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It’s probably safe to say that every parent is officially sick of the word “virus.” And quite literally, actually. Between the perils of COVID and now the influx of respiratory syncytial virus and numerous cases of the flu, our children are running a fever and coughing up phlegm like it’s their job. We are in the midst of what some are calling a “triple pandemic.”

And, yes, parents are sick and tired of seeing their kids sick and tired.

But what do we do about it? Well, brace yourself – it is going to be a hard winter. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, since the first week of October 2022, more than 32,000 children had tested positive for flu. There are more children in the hospital now than in the past 10 years.

And then there is RSV, which is particularly dangerous in infants and those with lung disease or poor immune systems. The CDC reported that every year, there are 2.1 million outpatient visits among children younger than 5 with RSV.

And although the COVID infection rate has decreased over time, it is and will continue to be a concern, especially, as Dr. Janice Key put it, “when people put their guard down.”

As a professor of pediatrics at the Medical University of South Carolina, Dr. Key has noticed that many of the viruses that were not seen during the first years of COVID sort of “woke back up.”

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“Coronavirus has been around for decades,” she said. “But it mutated in 2019 and became the lethal virus that is COVID-19.”

She noted that the issue with respiratory viruses such as COVID, RSV and the flu is that they have the power to mutate and change. She also mentioned their ability to travel around the globe through the air as well as spread from person to person.

Vaccines help prevent infection in many but not all cases, according to Dr. Key: “The flu vaccine is created in the summer time from the variant that is found on the opposite side of the world in Asia. So we have to create it based on that strain and predict what will happen here the following winter. It’s a mix of mutations that we have to create every year, so every year there is a slightly different flu vaccine. Sometimes we are right on the money and then other times we aren’t.”

The tendency to mutate is common among some viruses, requiring yearly updates in vaccinations to protect people. Most bacterial diseases don’t change as rapidly, so they do not need new versions of a vaccine. For example, the same vacci nation for tetanus, a bacterial disease, has been used for years and only requires a booster every 10 years as our immunity gradually wears off.

As a pediatrician, Dr. Key said she currently is most concerned about RSV: “It is the most dangerous because of the likelihood of it turning into pneumonia.”

She also mentioned that scientists are trying to come up with an RSV vaccine.

“We aren’t there yet, but they are working on it,” she commented.

A frequently asked question for Dr. Key when it comes to viruses are how parents can tell if the illness their child is experiencing is a virus or allergies.

“Charleston has a lot of allergens at different times of the year. For example, there are mold spores blown in the air when the air conditioners or heaters turn on, pets and even dust mites in stuffed toys,” she said, pointing out that the best indicator that a child is suffering with allergies and not a virus is a fever. “If your child has a fever, it isn’t an allergic reaction. It’s an infection.”

She added that in addition, allergies are not contagious. “If you were around someone with a bad cold and then you develop a stuffy nose, you can pretty much bet money that you have that cold and it isn’t allergies,” she explained.

She also noted that with allergies, the drainage usually is clear and often there are dark circles under the eyes. Another sign is when the child rubs the tip of his or her nose: “We call that the allergic salute.”

So what should we do to keep our kids safe during this winter? There are a couple of preventive steps that seem simple but really work. First, “get vaccinated,” said Dr. Key. Second, she recommends washing your hands and using hand sanitizer often. Third, if you are sick, stay home from work or school until your symptoms subside.

Finally, she said, “We discovered during COVID that masks really work. If you are susceptible or around others who are sick, wear a mask. These viruses love to jump from person to person.”

Dr. Key reiterated, “One last thing regarding protecting children – we should surround those who are most fragile with a virus-free defense.

For example, when there is a baby or sick child in the home, everyone should get vaccinated and be particularly cautious when in public.”

When it comes to viruses, it’s true that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The viruses might change, but they’ll always be around. In the end, Dr. Key advises parents to talk to their doctor about vaccines and how to stay healthy in the winter months.

By Theresa Stratford

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