CDC warns of ‘unusually large’ cluster of 23 cases of brain swelling in children under 3 months caused by common virus that causes cold-like illness in most but is more dangerous in infants
- All the babies were diagnosed during a one-month period until mid-May of this year.
- Each suffered from swelling of the brain and the lining of the brain due to the infection.
- Most recovered, but one child could be left with seizures for life, while a second could have permanent hearing loss.
- Parechovirus is a common infection, which usually has no symptoms.
- But it can be dangerous in children under six months of age, causing fever, seizures, and brain swelling. It could also prove fatal in rare cases.
An “unusually large” group of 23 infants under three months old suffered brain swelling in Tennessee after being infected with parechovirus, and COVID-19 lockdowns could be to blame.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that all the babies were diagnosed during a one-month period through mid-May of this year, and all but one were hospitalized. In 2018, only four cases per month were reported in the spring.
Parechovirus infections are common in children and usually pass without any symptoms, but among children under six months, the disease can cause fever, seizures, and brain swelling, and in rare cases can be fatal. It is usually spread through contact with siblings or parents.
Dr. Lili Tao, the Vanderbilt University microbiologist who led the article, told DailyMail.com that the increase may be due to ‘social distancing’ to stop the spread of Covid and weaken immunity against this virus, which caused an increase in cases now.
All the babies were diagnosed over a month-long period through mid-May this year, and all but one were hospitalized. (archive image)
The increase in cases was revealed in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR), the leading disease publication in the United States.
He said the children were between five days and three months old with a median age of 24 days, and 13 were female while 10 were male.
All of them suffered from inflammation in the brain and the lining of the brain due to the infection, medically called human parechovirus meningoencephalitis. Several also had fever, irritability, and poor nutrition.
What is parechovirus?
Parechovirus is a common and normally harmless infection among children and adults.
Most cases cause few or no symptoms and quickly go away on their own.
But the virus is much more dangerous in children younger than six months, where an infection can cause fever, seizures and brain swelling. In rare cases, it can also be fatal.
How can I get parechovirus?
The disease can be contracted by breathing the air of an infected person.
It can also be spread through the fecal-oral route, when someone touches a surface contaminated with feces and then their mouth.
What are the symptoms?
In many cases, it can cause few or no symptoms.
But in more serious infections, the virus can trigger fever, irritability, nausea, and diarrhea.
Among children younger than six months, it can also cause brain swelling, seizures, and be fatal in rare cases.
Is there a treatment?
There is no treatment designed specifically for the virus.
But sick newborns can be offered immunoglobulins, an intravenous drug that boosts immunity.
They may also be given Pleconaril, an oral antiviral medicine that fights infection.
Source: Cleveland Clinic.
All but one were admitted to Monrow Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital in Nashville.
Four of the children were transferred to intensive care for treatment.
Most of the children have recovered from the disease, but one may be left with long-lasting seizures, while the second may have permanent hearing loss.
The cases were diagnosed between April 12 and May 24 of this year.
It was not clear how they became infected, but the researchers noted that 16 lived with siblings or were exposed to other children.
One also became infected while in the wards of a neonatal unit.
When asked how the babies became infected, Dr. Tao said that many of the patients came from households where another member had symptoms of a respiratory virus, a telltale sign of parechovirus.
“It suggests that it could be a household member in the family who had the infection and probably passed it on to very young babies,” he said.
It was also unclear what treatment the babies had received.
Parechovirus cases generally increase every two years during the spring and summer months in line with warming conditions.
But this usually goes largely unnoticed because the virus rarely causes serious infections in people.
However, during 2020, when the next surge was expected, none were detected as COVID-19 restrictions kept many at home and away from others.
Tao said the investigation was launched after doctors noticed that the parechovirus was affecting more children than usual.
Asked if this could be due to a drop in immunity due to restrictions stopping the virus from circulating, he said: “We can’t say for sure, but there is a strong possibility that this is associated with social distancing.”
“We didn’t see any spike in the virus in 2020, that suggests it’s associated with this.”
She couldn’t say if it was being driven by factors similar to the spate of hepatitis cases in children.
British scientists say it may be caused by lockdowns that weaken children’s immunity, but in the United States, health officials say there has been no unusual increase in hepatitis cases.
There were 19 cases of parechovirus detected during five spring months in Tennessee in 2018, the data shows. From 2019 to 2021, seven cases were reported.