A month ago, enterovirus D68 (EV-D68) was a mild concern to parents around the country as kids headed back to school. The virus caused fever, runny nose, sneezing, coughing, and body aches in mild cases, and wheezing and difficulty breathing in severe cases.
But the virus seemed to be isolated to the Southeast and parts of the Midwest and unlikely to be fatal. A month later, the landscape seems very different.
“We suspect that millions of people have been infected with this virus in the last two months,” said Mark Pallansch, Director of the Division of Viral Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “This is by far the largest cluster [of EV-D68] we’ve seen,” said Stephen Morse, professor of epidemiology at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
Per the CDC, EV-D68 has now been confirmed in 46 out of 50 states. “It’s almost sure to soon be the whole continental United States, because it’s spread so well,” Morse said.
While panicked school boards call emergency meetings and parents try to figure out how to protect their children, the unfortunate truth is that much about EV-D68 remains a mystery. And it’s likely to remain that way.
EV-D68 was, until recently, fairly rare. First discovered in California in 1962, it’s one of hundreds of seasonal viruses that pop up every summer and fall. When everyone in the office seems to have a cold, or your kid suddenly begins producing alarming amounts of mucus, it’s usually because of a virus similar to EV-D68.
But 2014 has been unique. “What’s different this year are the number of children coming to the ER and actually being sick enough to be admitted or end up in the pediatric intensive care unit,” said Lisa Miller, division director for Disease Control and Environmental Epidemiology at Colorado’s Department of Public Health. “Those numbers were higher than normal for this time of year. That’s what first got people’s attention, how sick these children were.” In Colorado, Missouri, California, and other states, children (some of whom have tested positive for EV-D68) have been struck with with polio-like symptoms, including partial paralysis. And in New Jersey, 4-year-old Eli Waller was found dead after falling asleep. The county health commissioner later said it was due to complications from EV-D68.