Enterovirus 68 as been known for more than 50 years, but a recent outbreak that has hospitalized children across the United States has parents looking for answers. Enteroviruses are a common source of childhood illnesses, primarily causing respiratory or inflammatory disease. Most ordinary infectious diseases children get growing up result from enteroviruses. These diseases are generally fairly mild and quickly run their course, causing nothing worse than temporary discomfort. However, enterovirus 68 is on of the more severe types. Only six outbreaks were reported from 2005 to 2011, but since this past August, there have been nearly 700 cases throughout the country, resulting in five deaths.
The cold is a type of enterovirus and indeed most enteroviruses are spread like colds, through close contact. That means any sort of direct touching, or sharing eating utensils or drinking glasses, or toys. People can also pick up the virus by touching their faces after touching a surface that has the virus on it, such as a chair or table at which a sick person has recently been sitting. The spread can be prevented by washing hands and surfaces, and avoiding shaking hands with, kissing, or hugging people who might be infected. Most people with enterovirus 68 can treat it with the care given a cold—rest for a week, plenty of fluids. It is slightly more of a danger for children with asthma. It is unusual, though not unheard of, for enterovirus 68 to be deadly.
What is unusual about the August outbreak is its size. After fewer than 100 reported cases in the Unites States in half a century, the recent outbreak has seen 30 cases per day at just one hospital, with close to 700 overall over about two months. Some experts say it’s a statistical artifact, with previous cases going unrecognized, while better diagnostic techniques and greater attention by health agencies are making the virus more readily identified without actually being more common. This frequently happens with rare or recently discovered diseases. Some enterovirus 68 patients have had paralysis, but it’s not clear i or how this relates to the virus.