There is another infectious disease outbreak in Ottawa right now, one that can be particularly tough on young children. Officials are hoping a vaccine, now being tested in Ottawa, could eventually change the trajectory of that illness, called respiratory syncytial virus or RSV.
RSV, a common respiratory virus, shows up every year. But this year is different.
As seen first in other parts of the world, the virus is hitting harder and much earlier than usual, likely related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Last year, with public health measures and reduced mobility, all viral illnesses were down significantly.
This fall, CHEO has seen a record surge of RSV, which is the most common reason children in their first year of life get admitted to hospital. RSV can also be hard on the frail elderly. Around the world, some 2.7 million people die every year from illness associated with RSV.
Ottawa is seeing the biggest outbreak in the province right now.
So far this month, 23 children have been admitted to CHEO with RSV, and October is not over yet. Previously, the highest number ever admitted to CHEO for RSV during the month of October was 15. In October 2020, there were no RSV admissions to the children’s hospital.
The viral illness usually hits hardest between the months of November to about March. But this year international health experts have been warning it would begin earlier than usual because there was so little around last year. As a result, children did not have an opportunity to build up immunity to it, nor did pregnant mothers pass antibodies onto their babies. That increased the pool of highly susceptible children.
Experts have also warned RSV spread could strain pediatric hospitals, which are dealing with COVID-19 and other issues.
For weeks, CHEO officials have been warning parents that its emergency department is significantly busier than usual. RSV is among the reasons.
Dr. Charles Hui, head of infectious diseases at CHEO, said the hospital had seen a “significant surge” in RSV numbers, including children coming into emergency and requiring admission.
“I wouldn’t say we are overwhelmed, but we are seeing a significant number of cases and a lot earlier than we usually expect.”
According to data from Public Health Ontario, Ottawa is reporting the majority of RSV cases in the province.
In Canada, high-risk children under two years old — those born extremely prematurely, with congenital heart issues or who require oxygen — are treated monthly with monoclonal antibodies to prevent RSV. This year, a decision was made to begin that treatment earlier than usual, Hui said.
And, while that treatment helps the highest risk children, Hui said a vaccine to protect everyone from RSV would be the “holy grail” for preventing severe illness.
Dr. Bill Cameron, an infectious disease specialist and senior scientist at The Ottawa Hospital, said a vaccine could offer valuable protection to vulnerable older people as well and reduce outbreaks in nursing homes and elsewhere.
Cameron is leading a clinical trial in Ottawa for an RSV vaccine developed by the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. Researchers are recruiting volunteers aged 60 and over to take part. (More information is available at email@example.com or 613-737-8811.)
Cameron said RSV “doesn’t have the drama” of COVID-19, but the burden of the disease in the population is significant.
“I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. If we did have a vaccine, that would be a good thing.”
For most people, RSV will produce only minor or no symptoms. But, for the most vulnerable, it is a serious lower-tract respiratory illness that can be deadly. Its symptoms can mimic a cold or flu, but in more serious cases include fever, coughing, wheezing and a decrease in appetite.
As modern cities become more crowded, Cameron said infectious diseases like RSV spread more easily.
“We are going to see more and more outbreaks of respiratory infections. We can control these and vaccines are tools that work. We will all be better off for it.”