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Health Officials Monitoring Enterovirus Strain

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A respiratory virus that has sent more than 1,000 children to emergency rooms since mid-August has parents in Florida worried their child could be next, if the disease makes its way to the Sunshine State.

Out of that total – mostly in the Midwest -- the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed more than 130 pediatric cases of Enterovirus D68 in 17 states, including Alabama.

Dr. John Lanza, Director of the Florida Department of Health in Escambia County, says no official cases have been confirmed in Florida, but that may change soon.

“In fact, we have a couple of samples that have tested positive for one of the 100 different types of enterovirus at a local hospital, that we have sent off to the Florida State Lab, to see if it’s the D68,” said Lanza.

Officials at University of South Alabama Children’s Hospital say they began noticing more cases of children with severe colds and trouble breathing last month. Of the more than 300 kids treated there, about 45 were admitted.

The disease hasn't been officially identified, because there are literally hundreds of variations of the enterovirus. They’re all related to the rhinovirus, which causes the common cold. Lanza says therein lies the problem with trying to pinpoint just which bug to go after.

“The difference here is that this particular strain seems to be a little more significant in its consequences,” Lanza said. “Kind of reminds me somewhat of RSV -- Respiratory syncytial virus – which is starting about right now in Florida.”

Enteroviruses are very common during the fall and winter. The CDC estimates up to 15 million infections occur in the U-S each year. Enterovirus D68 seems to be exacerbating breathing problems in children with asthma, which is leading to more hospitalizations.

As far as the symptoms of enterovirus, Lanza says they’re virtually the same as the common cold – coughing, sneezing, runny nose, and sometimes sleepiness. And like the common cold, enteroviruses are spread through the air. Lanza says the same protections against colds and flu apply here.

“Washing your hands frequently, especially after shaking hands or before eating, (is) the most common way of preventing transmission,” Lanza said. “But if you are sick or your child is sick, don’t send them to school and you don’t go to work. Also, cough into your sleeve or sneeze into your sleeve.”

The CDC is asking hospitals around the country to send in samples if they suspect Enterovirus D68 has caused a patient's severe respiratory illness. When the first such reports came from the Midwest, Dr. John Lanza says information was sent out from the Florida Department of Health to every hospital and physician in the state.

As of last week, there were no adult infections and no one had died -- although both are possible.

Dave came to WUWF in September, 2002, after 14 years as News Director at the Alabama Radio Network in Montgomery, Mobile and Birmingham and a total of 27 years in commercial radio. He's also served as Alabama Bureau Chief for United Press International, and a stringer for the Birmingham Post-Herald.