A medical resident treats a patient with flu symptoms at Lehigh Valley Hospital… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)
California hasn’t suffered from the flu as much as some other parts of the country have, with their hospital ERs clogged with patients struggling with fevers, breathing problems and other symptoms typical of influenza.
But as public health officials wait to see whether influenza will strike hard here, they’ve already noticed record levels of infections with respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV — another virus that impacts the respiratory system, and which can be particularly dangerous in young children.
Speaking with The Times last week, Dr. Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said that many people who had shown up in local hospitals over the past six weeks or so complaining of flu-like illness actually had RSV, and that the county was experiencing the “highest level of RSV we’ve seen.”
The county’s most recent Influenza Watch report said RSV prevalence at the end of the December was the highest recorded in the last three years. In all, 460 people have tested positive for the virus this season — 143 of them just in the last week of 2012.
In adults, RSV infection can seem like a flu, causing a runny nose, a sore throat and an all-around sick feeling. In young kids, it can be very serious, Fielding said. Children with RSV, and particularly premature infants, can develop fever, a croupy cough, rapid breathing and cyanosis, the bluish tinge that skin gets when oxygen levels fall. It also can result in complications such as ear infections, bronchitis or pneumonia, he added.
“We’re particularly concerned about the young kids,” Fielding said.
RSV appears to be rising in other parts of the country as well — along with norovirus, a.k.a. "winter vomiting sickness." On the East Coast, norovirus cases have been in the news almost as much as flu cases. Physicians in Los Angeles also report seeing more norovirus than usual this time of year.
During a conversation with reporters on Friday, U.S Centers for Disease Control director Dr. Thomas Frieden said that he thought many of the reports of rampant flu might reflect the large numbers of people visiting their doctors with stomach woes from norovirus or respiratory ills from RSV or even the common cold.
Dr. Sharon Orrange, an internist and clinical professor at USC's Keck School of Medicine, said she thought people mistook a variety of wintertime illnesses for the flu — sometimes even thinking that a vaccination has made them ill when really they’ve been stricken with some other bug.
“Folks think the flu shot makes them sick,” she said. “They were going to get sick anyway.”