Current reports show a significant rise in the number of preterm births over the past 20 years. These rates have risen from 9.4 percent to 11.9 percent, an increase of more than 27 percent between 1981 and 2001. Prematurity now affects one out of eight babies. Babies are considered premature if they are born before 36 weeks of gestation. Each week, there are more than 9,500 babies born before the 37th week of gestation and 1,500 babies born before 32 weeks of gestation in the United States. These premature babies may face more health, physical and cognitive problems than full-term babies.
One of these potential problems is an increased risk for complications from a little known, but serious, pediatric illness called Respiratory Syncytial Virus or RSV disease.
What is RSV?
RSV is a virus that causes a respiratory tract infection. It can cause respiratory tract illness in patients of all ages, but children under the age of one are especially vulnerable. RSV is a very serious concern for infants. In fact, it is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia and is the leading cause of viral death in children under the age of five. It has also been shown that RSV is the number one reason for hospitalization of children under the age of one.
Almost all children are exposed to the virus during the first two years of life and re-infection throughout life is very common. In fact, according to the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), each year, as many as 125,000 children are hospitalized with serious RSV disease and some may die from complications.
There are certain characteristics about preemies that put them at a high risk for catching RSV. Premature birth interrupts the final stages of normal lung development and this puts these infants at risk for contracting serious RSV disease. These vulnerable premature infants have neither developed a normal immune response yet nor the lung capacity of full-term children. This makes it difficult for these infants to fight infections, and is why RSV can turn very serious very quickly.
Serious cases of RSV can lead to hospitalization and, sadly, death for some infants. If you are a parent of a preemie, it is important to closely monitor your baby's health.
What are the risk factors for RSV?
There are several factors that increase the risk of serious RSV infection and hospitalization. These include the following:
- Preterm birth
- Chronic lung disease
- Congenital heart disease
- Exposure to second-hand smoke
- Daycare attendance
- Multiple birth
- Family history of asthma
- Birth within 6 months of the onset of RSV season
RSV season is fall through spring, but in limited areas of the country, the season lasts all year. It is important for families and caregivers to learn more as much as they can about RSV and how to protect their at-risk children.
What are the symptoms of RSV and how is it spread?
The initial symptoms of RSV infection are similar to a cold and include: fever, runny nose and coughing. More serious symptoms include wheezing, difficulty breathing, inability to eat and apnea or pauses in breathing. The symptoms can occur rapidly and if you have an at-risk child, especially one with additional risk factors, should closely monitor your child.
It is also important to know that RSV is very easily spread. RSV is passed from person-to-person via sneezing, coughing or by hands touching the nose or eyes and then coming into contact with another person or object. The RSV virus can survive up to six hours on hands and up to 12 hours on surfaces.
Spreading the virus within a family is very common. Often daycare or school-aged children bring the virus into the home. As a parent, you should try to limit your baby's exposure to settings where they can come into contact with people who might be sick, such as at malls, places of worship, holiday gatherings. Most importantly, good handwashing is one of the best ways to limit the spread of RSV and keep you and your family healthy.
How you can help protect your baby from RSV
To help reduce a baby's exposure to the virus, you and other caregivers can follow these simple steps:
There is a medication, Synagis� (palivizumab), that is indicated for the prevention of serious lower respiratory tract disease caused by RSV in pediatric patients at high risk of RSV disease. Synagis is a humanized monoclonal antibody licensed by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1998. Synagis is given through a simple intramuscular injection, which can be administered in the healthcare provider's office once a month during the RSV season.
Synagis has been used safely in thousands of babies. Adverse events with Synagis may include upper respiratory tract infection, ear infection, fever and runny nose. Very rare cases of severe allergic reactions such as anaphylaxis (<1 case per 100,000 patients) and hypersensitivity reactions have been reported. Synagis should not be used in patients with a history of a severe prior reaction to Synagis or its components.
For further information, contact your child's pediatrician about RSV risks and prevention or call (877)848-8512, visit the PreemieCare web site at www.MOSTonline.org, or visit the RSV web site at www.rsvprotection.com.