State health officials Friday confirmed more than a dozen pediatric cases of a serious respiratory virus in New York, the first instances of an infection that has been moving across the country in recent weeks.
The pathogen is known as enterovirus D68 -- or EV-D68 -- and although considered rare by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it has flared in an unexpected outbreak. Most of the cases had been concentrated in Colorado and several Midwestern states, but word from state health officials confirms the pathogen has reached New York.
EV-D68 causes wheezing, coughing and mild to severe respiratory distress. While there have been no fatalities reported, there is no vaccine or antiviral medication to treat it.
New York's confirmed cases are in the central and capitol regions, according to the New York State Department of Health, which issued an advisory Friday. Additional specimens from other regions are under evaluation by the state laboratory.
"It is very unusual to see such severe respiratory illnesses in the summer," said Dr. Saul Hymes, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook University Hospital.
He and his colleagues have not seen any cases at Stony Brook.
"We are keeping an eye out and the hospital epidemiologist and the infection control staff are keeping an eye out as well. My guess is that this enterovirus probably behaves a lot like RSV and wintertime viruses," he said of respiratory syncytial virus and the flu, which can cause sweeping seasonal illnesses.
Attention to hygiene -- hand-washing and keeping surfaces sanitized -- are the best ways to avoid infection.
In Manhattan, Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital, said children with asthma and bronchiolitis are among the most vulnerable. Bronchiolitis is a common infection in children that causes congestion in the lungs' small airways.
Glatter said any child who develops wheezing and a cough should be taken to the nearest hospital emergency department.
"This is a very serious virus," Glatter said, adding "the CDC said the cases seen so far are probably just the tip of the iceberg and that this epidemic will probably get worse before it gets better.
"It's unclear at this point why the virus has started to spread so quickly. Young children are developing it more than teens. But nothing so far explains the intensity or widespread nature of it," Glatter said.
He added that some cases reported elsewhere in the country have been so severe that children required mechanical ventilation.
The virus was first identified in 1962, but for years had been considered rare, according to the CDC.Why it suddenly emerged in recent weeks is under study by CDC disease detectives who are also investigating why some cases are so severe.
From mid-August through Sept. 11, 2014, a total of 82 cases have been confirmed in six states by the CDC's laboratory. However, hundreds of people, mostly children, have been hospitalized. The agency has not yet included confirmed cases from all states in its official count.