Medical researchers are calling for better monitoring of the potentially deadly human parechovirus which can cause brain and blood infections in young children following a spike in cases.
Sabrina McDonald’s newborn son Alec had only been home a few days when he became severely ill and was rushed to the local emergency department.
“The first thing you think of is just, ‘let my baby live’,” Ms McDonald told the ABC.
“That’s the main concern, especially when my husband and I watched him stop breathing about three times in front of us in the hospital.”
Baby Alec’s condition got worse, and he was placed in the intensive care unit while doctors tried to figure out what was wrong.
After a few sleepless nights, Ms McDonald and her husband found out their child was sick with parechovirus.
“You go through a rollercoaster of emotions, because they come back and tell you, ‘well this is good, we’re going to take him off antibiotics because he doesn’t have anything severe like bloody poisoning or anything’,” Ms McDonald said.
“And then 24 hours later they come back and tell you that it’s this parechovirus, and it’s unknown, and then you’re back at the bottom of the rollercoaster.
“And from that it meant that he had viral meningitis that the parechovirus had caused.”
Months later, baby Alec is doing better, but he undergoes check-ups and testing every few weeks to make sure there are no lasting affects.
‘Hot, red, angry babies’
According to a new study published in the Medical Journal of Australia, it is an ordeal that is increasingly being played out in hospitals around Australia.
The study looked at cases of the virus diagnosed in Australia since 2013.
One of the study’s authors, Dr Cheryl Jones, said mild cases of the illness usually aren’t a concern, but severe presentations in very young children can have devastating consequences.
“We’ve called these babies the hot, red, angry babies,” Dr Jones said.
“These babies can have high fevers, be very irritable, have at times a nasty red rash over their body.
“But they also have evidence of brain involvement with seizures or fits, evidence of involvement with their whole body, with circulatory failure or shock involving ICU admission,” she said.
“And these babies can be at risk not only of death but long-term consequences including brain damage.”
The virus is contagious, and with no effective anti-viral therapies, treatment is restricted to managing symptoms and complications.
Mild cases can present with no symptoms at all.
Number of cases on the rise
The disease also appears to have outbreak cycles, and the number of cases are on the rise – something researchers are still trying to understand.
“The pattern we’ve seen in Australia is that it comes in a two-yearly cycle,” Dr Jones said.
“Our first bad one was in 2013-14, and then every two years we’ve had an outbreak, starting in a different city and spreading along the east coast.
“We don’t know fully why it’s behaving in that pattern.”
Dr Jones said more research is needed to understand and treat the disease.
“What we need is greater awareness for our clinicians who look after babies, firstly to look for this virus, particularly in the summer outbreak periods when you hear this is around,” she said.
“But what we also need is more funding for our research to really understand why this virus causes severe disease, so that we can counsel families but also design ways to better prevent or treat serious disease.”