When Breanne MacLennan’s baby boy first got sick last May, it started with some congestion.
Next came trouble breathing.
After three trips to the Winnipeg Children’s Hospital emergency department came the news that Walker, only six weeks old at the time, would have to be admitted.
“It was such a terrible time and a terrifying time,” MacLennan said.
Walker was sick with RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus. His older brother, who was just under two years old, was also very sick with the virus, but was able to recover at home.
With Manitoba seeing what’s been called an early spike of RSV cases, the Manitoba mom is sharing her family’s story to raise awareness. She wants people to know what can seem like just a cold for some can be devastating for others — including newborn babies.
Walker ended up in hospital for three days, said MacLennan. He was on oxygen and needed a feeding tube while he recovered.
“The hospital staff is amazing, and they tell you, ‘OK, Day 5 and 6 are the worst. You can do this, you can get through it,'” she said.
“You just wait for the worst to end and hope on Day 7 you’re one of the lucky families that sees that spontaneous recovery and gets to go home.”
Respiratory viruses, including RSV and influenza, have led to an alarming surge in the number of sick kids at the Winnipeg children’s emergency department in recent weeks.
The department saw the busiest day it had in years on Nov. 13, with 201 patient visits in one day, according to a spokesperson from Manitoba Shared Health.
Dr. Jared Bullard, the section head of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Manitoba, expects the children’s emergency department to remain busy over the next several months.
1st infections hit kids hard
Bullard, who is part of the team that helps treat patients with complex infections at the hospital, said public health measures taken over the last few years to reduce the spread of COVID-19 also meant kids weren’t getting sick with the viruses that normally circulate.
“When you have your primary infection, or the first time you get it, you’re going to be sicker,” explained Bullard.
“As a result, we have a whole cohort of children — more than we typically would — that haven’t been exposed to these viruses [and] are getting infected for the first time.”
While the majority will have cold-like symptoms and can be treated at home, “there’s a proportion ultimately who will end up in hospital,” said Bullard.
A number of children are also getting sick with more than one virus.
But Bullard said it’s unlikely the rise in respiratory illness among children is due to kids’ immune systems being affected by previous COVID-19 infections.
“Children under the age of five typically have virus after virus after virus, and their immune system responds exceptionally well,” said Bullard.
“What happens with COVID in terms of that immune response — do we know for certain? No. But it’s probably not significantly different than the other respiratory viruses.”
Flu shots key: doctor
While the idea of mask mandates to slow the spread of viruses has once again become a focus of debate, Bullard said they aren’t a solution on their own.
He points to the combination of measures we’ve grown accustomed to hearing about from medical experts throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to help reduce transmission.
He said it’s key that everyone, including young children, gets the flu shot, as Bullard said he’s recently seen children coming into hospital with influenza.
“Influenza vaccine is very effective, and this year in particular we know it’s matching the viruses that are circulating in the community,” said Bullard.
Good hand hygiene and making sure adults and children stay home when sick are also important, he said.
Parents who are worried about RSV should make sure people wash their hands before holding a baby and they aren’t sick when they come to visit, said Bullard.
“Even if they say, ‘Well, I’ll just wear a mask and I can cuddle with the newborn,’ just don’t do it.”
MacLennan said months after their RSV infection, her boys are happy and healthy, though they still need inhalers when they get a cold. Her oldest son has been diagnosed with asthma.
She said she normally wouldn’t want to publicly share what she describes as her son’s most vulnerable time.
But MacLennan decided to share a post on social media this month to get the word out about symptoms to watch for and how serious RSV can be, so that “people could see ‘OK, this is here, it’s happening, let’s protect our babies’,” she said.
“The best thing that you can do is not go anywhere near any newborn babies if you even have the smallest little sniffle.”