A rare virus is marching through the Midwest just in time for back-to-school, the time of year when viruses start to spread rapidly between students before infecting the rest of the population.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is looking into hundreds of suspected cases of enterovirus 68, an infection that starts out like the common cold but can quickly turn serious – especially in children with asthma. The virus is thought to spread through contact with respiratory secretions like saliva and mucus as well as feces, health officials say.
“Every year we see the same thing: children return to school and enteroviruses circulate in the community,” said ABC News’ chief health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser. “Because of this, it is very common for children to get back-to-school colds and other illnesses.”
The virus was first reported in Kansas and Missouri, but suspected cases have also been reported in Atlanta, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Ohio, Oklahoma and Utah.
“It obviously spreads very, very readily because it moved across the Midwest and has now gone down to the South,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee. “When children get close together in school, circulate for prolonged periods of time indoors, that is an ideal circumstance for this respiratory virus to spread from child to child.”
And viruses can spread quickly. Researchers at the University of Arizona found that it only takes two to four hours for a virus to make its way from one contaminated doorknob or table top to 40 to 60 percent of an office’s population and objects. Lead researcher Charles Gerba said his team used tracer viruses that are the exact same size and shape as an enterovirus.
“Most people don’t realize touching surfaces is a great way to spread infections,” Gerba said, adding that his experiment included 80 adults, and that the employee break room was always the first to become infected.
But Gerber’s study was in adults, who typically touch their faces about 12 times an hour, he said. Two-year-olds touch their faces 80 times an hour, according to Gerba, and 5-year-olds touch their faces about 60 times an hour.
“That’s what makes these kids more likely to get it,” Gerba said. “The best friend a virus ever had is your fingers.”
Although Besser said it’s hard to completely prevent children from getting sick, parents can help.
“You can reduce the spread by making sure your child’s classroom enforces good hand-washing before lunch and after kids come back from the bathroom,” Besser said. “Soap and water is best but when that isn’t possible, alcohol-based hand sanitizer works great.”
Since children with asthma are more likely to have breathing difficulty when they catch enterovirus 68, Besser said parents should watch for danger signs.
“If your child catches a cold and starts to wheeze, don’t ignore it,” he said. “Get them seen by their doctor, right away.”