Two of B.C.’s three enterovirus cases in Fraser region

Virus causes severe respiratory illness in children, initial cases may be 'early warning signal'

B.C. Centre for Disease Control epidemiologist Dr. Danuta Skowronski.

Three B.C. residents are the province’s first lab-confirmed cases of a virus causing severe respiratory illness in children elsewhere in North America.

Two of the B.C. cases of enterovirus D68 are children from the Fraser Health region, while the third is a young adult male from the Interior. Both Fraser cases were treated in Vancouver and have since been discharged from hospital.

Dr. Danuta Skowronski, an epidemiologist with the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, said there are at least three more suspected cases and it’s likely numerous others have been exposed to the virus or may have felt only minor symptoms.

So far B.C. hospitals haven’t seen the sharp spike in respiratory illness that could be tied to the virus, which has stricken more than 130 children in a dozen U.S. states and at least 18 in Alberta.

All indicators have been within seasonal levels, Skowronski said.

“We know it’s in the community and it’s not yet associated with outbreaks,” she said.

“But this may be an early warning signal to us that what’s happening elsewhere may be upon us here in B.C.”

Enterovirus activity is seasonal – it peaks in summer and fall – so she said there’s a chance it could soon dissipate here.

Telltale symptoms of enterovirus D68 are wheezing or difficulty breathing deep in the lungs and children with past respiratory trouble, such as asthma, are believed at greater risk.

Most victims don’t have a fever, Skowronksi said, adding absence of one shouldn’t be taken by parents as a sign not to worry.

While most U.S. cases have involved very young pre-schoolers, B.C.’s first three cases are older, ranging from nine to 19 years of age.

Skowronski said the virus is not new – there have been outbreaks of it before – and variants circulate each year.

“We shouldn’t freak out,” she said, noting there have been no deaths and all patients are expected to recover.

But nor should it be dismissed, she added, because it’s causing severe illness, particularly in children, who sometimes require hospitalization and intensive care.

“This may be a particularly nasty variant circulating,” she said.

There’s no vaccine or specific treatment for enterovirus D68, leaving public health officials to stress the usual ways to prevent the spread of viruses – frequent handwashing, coughing into the elbow and staying home if sick with a suspected respiratory infection.

Regular cleaning of surfaces at home and in schools can also help limit the spread, said Fraser Health medical health officer Dr. Michelle Murti.

She noted the end of the B.C. teachers strike may be a factor in the days ahead.

“Kids are going back to school now so there might be more exposure or passing of the illness,” she said. “That’s a time when more germs are spread around.”

Staff at Fraser facilities have been advised to be on alert to the virus and particularly to worsening conditions in children with a history of asthma, Murti said.