Respiratory Virus, Enterovirus D68, Likely Infected Thousands But Just Tip of Iceberg

PHOTO: Childrens Hospital Colorado is seeing high numbers of respiratory illnesses. 9-year-old patient Jayden Broadway of Denver is being treated at the hospital seen in this Sept. 8, 2014 photo for the Enterovirus D68. PlayCyrus McCrimmon/Denver Post via Getty Images
WATCH Mystery Respiratory Virus Spreads to 21 States

The respiratory virus that’s been sweeping the nation and sending asthmatic children to the hospital may have only been officially reported in 97 children, but experts say that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Dr. Claudia Hoyen said the virus, called enterovirus D68, probably affected thousands of children -- and that’s just in Cleveland, where she works. The virus has been reported in 21 states, according to state health departments.

At UH Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, about 20 children normally go to the intensive care unit each month with respiratory symptoms, said Hoyen, who heads the hospital’s pediatric infection control program. But for the last two months, the hospital’s intensive care unit has treated 80 children per month, she said.

“That’s fourfold over what we would normally get,” Hoyen said.

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The rare enterovirus starts out like the common cold but can quickly turn more serious -- especially in children with asthma. Enteroviruses often appear in the summer and fall, but an outbreak like this hasn’t occurred since the 1960s, Hoyen said.

Although UH has not yet determined how many cases of enterovirus D68 it treated this summer, Hoyen said she can extrapolate the number of extra ICU patients over two months to guess how many children had less-severe cases, too.

“My guess is that this is probably in the thousands, because a lot of the kids probably had infections and their parents just thought it was a little cough,” she said. “They weren’t sick enough to seek actual medical attention.”

Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn’t require hospitals and labs to report enterovirus D68, public health officials may never know the true scope of the outbreak, said ABC News Chief Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser.

“So although the CDC is reporting 97 confirmed enterovirus cases, this number does not in any way reflect the true number of people who are infected or sick,” Besser said, adding that most local health departments have no way of testing for the virus and no reason to do so because there is no cure available. “My advice: forget about this number. Look to your health department.”

Besser said parents should simply ask their doctors whether enterovirus D68 is in their town and be vigilant if it is.

“If your child has any difficulty breathing (wheezing, difficulty speaking or eating, belly pulling in with breaths, blueness around the lips) see a doctor right away,” he said.