As the health system battles high levels of serious illness in young children caused by the RSV virus, the chief medical officer has warned a potentially difficult flu season is yet to peak and far too few children are protected.
Michael Hanrahan, the specialist registrar in public health medicine for Cork and Kerry, said RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) hit earlier than usual this year and the number of cases has risen faster than usual, putting extra pressure on the health system.
There has been a 35% rise in the number of cases so far this year (4,470) compared to 3,308 in the same period of 2021. RSV has become particularly prevalent in the last fortnight, with 1,341 cases reported.
RSV is particularly serious for small children and older people. A small but significant number of babies can end up in hospital with serious complications from it.
The mother of an eight-week-old baby admitted to intensive care with RSV has urged parents to keep their infants safe as watching her daughter struggle was “horrendous”.
Katie Barry told theshe will never forget watching her daughter Ada reliant on oxygen machines in CHI at Crumlin.
Ada is now home with Katie and her partner Aaron, and the parents desperately want to alert other parents to the risks. Ms Barry said:
She initially took Ada to a GP and the emergency department but her condition worsened and she needed hospital care and then an intensive care unit.
“When they said ICU, I panicked, but in the end it was the best place for her,” Ms Barry said as she urged parents to ask visitors to their homes to wear masks or to stay away if ill.
Dr Hanrahan said there is no evidence the virus has changed to cause this year’s spike, adding: “It is probably more to do with changes in our behaviour, and our natural immunity has been affected due to the long periods of lockdown, I would suspect.”
The virus can seem similar to Covid-19, and he said hospitals could be testing more frequently as a result.
“But there has been a lot of people attending hospitals and GPs due to RSV which is concerning,” he said.
GPs are seeing a sharp rise in the last few weeks, according to Irish College of General Practitioners lead for infection control Scott Walkin.
“Most of those [children] would have a fairly mild illness, but a small percentage would have severe illness,” Dr Walkin said. “Those that have severe illness, the things parents will identify would be a fever which is persisting, and particularly a fever which is not responsive to pain relief medications.”
He recommended parents contact their GP if symptoms do not settle down.
Meanwhile, chief medical officer Breda Smyth has urged parents to get a flu vaccine for their children.
Prof Smyth said less than 10% of eligible children aged 2 to 17 have received their vaccine so far this year.
She pointed out that, in the week to November 27, the number of flu cases rose by 16% to 223 and the virus has yet to peak:
“There is a lot of intergenerational mixing at Christmas, which is of course very much welcomed, but it does give winter viruses an opportunity to spread.
“By getting your child vaccinated, you can help to protect older people and those who are vulnerable. If we all play our part, it will help to keep us safe this Christmas.”
The Department of Health says it takes approximately two weeks for the flu vaccine to become fully effective, and parents are encouraged to take the “golden opportunity” to boost their children’s protection in advance of Christmas.