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Beyond the Flu and Bird Flu

Find out what's really ailing you this cold and flu season.

RSV continued...

That's why early identification of RSV in infants is key, adds Albert L. Pizzica, DO, a neonatologist in Philadelphia and president of the National Perinatal Association, now based in Harrisburg, Pa. "You have to recognize a worsening cold because especially in preemies, we don't have a margin or error," he says. "It's a very short line between a mild cold and flu and being put on a breathing machine." Premature infants are at high risk of developing RSV, yet a new survey conducted by USA/DIRECT shows that parents of preemies know precious little about this bug. In fact, 90% of parents whose babies have been hospitalized with RSV say that they need better information about RSV prevention.

There is no widely used treatment for RSV, but ribavirin, an antiviral, can be used for the sickest of the sick. "It's controversial whether ribavirin helps or not and whether it can actually do some damage is not entirely clear," Schachter says.

Unlike the flu, there is no vaccine for RSV yet, Walsh says, although that's not from lack of trying. Unfortunately, attempts to develop a vaccine have met with varying degrees of failure.

As a result, prevention is the best way to protect against RSV. The flu is more likely to spread through coughing, but RSV, like the common cold, spreads mainly as large droplets via such surfaces as doorknobs, faucets, dish towels, and hand-to-hand contact.

"The way to reduce the risk is simply by washing hands as many times as you can and avoiding sharing things between kids," Pizzica says. "Clean off toys, clothes, and play areas," he adds. Also, "keep stuffed animals and shag rugs out of the kid's room because they can be a breeding ground for RSV and other viruses."

It also makes sense to keep your baby away from other sick individuals whenever possible, he says.

Metapneumovirus

The metapneumovirus has a relative in bird world, says Walsh. "It's closely related to a syndrome of respiratory disease in turkeys. "It's really indistinguishable from RSV in all age groups," he says "It's new and people don't have the tools to study it. And it is hard to grow, which is why it was not identified for so long." Being able to grow the virus is a necessary step toward proper diagnosis.

"It was first characterized about four to five years ago and it tends to give more benign infections although in the old, young, and immunocompromised, it can be quite lethal," Schachter adds. Studies suggest that most children have been infected by human metapneumovirus by age 5. "By and large, it accounts for to up to 10%-20% of standard respiratory infections that we used to think of as a cold or mild flu."

However, "the overwhelming majority are never diagnosed properly and go untreated because treatment even for the flu is marginal to modest at best," Walsh says. "People have not worried too much about diagnosing the specific virus and [instead] say 'go home, eat chicken soup, drink fluids, and you'll get better,'" he says. And again, the best way to prevent this villain from entering your body is regular hand washing.

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