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I thought my baby had flu but it was a deadly virus I’d never heard of – the signs and symptoms you need to know

FINDING your baby floppy, unresponsive and even blue from lack of oxygen is every parents worst nightmare.

But its what can happen to babies and young children with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) a common but little-known illness that can be fatal.

Christines daughter Aria was 12 days old when she came down with RSV
Christine, pictured with daughter Aria, wants other parents to be aware of RSV

Its a leading cause of infant mortality and is especially dangerous to babies born prematurely.

Cases of the bug, which infects the lungs, have surged recently, especially among under-fives.

Lorna Smith had never heard of RSV before young son Caolan was struck down with it.

Seeing your tiny baby connected to loads of machines, struggling to breathe, has to be one of the most traumatic things a mother can experience, says Lorna, 35, from Southampton.

RSV spreads via contaminated droplets when someone coughs or sneezes and virus experts are warning were headed for a lethal triple mix of Covid-19, influenza and RSV this winter.

Yet many parents have no idea their child could be at risk.

Lorna says RSV wasnt even mentioned in her antenatal classes and is calling on the NHS to provide parents with better education on the virus.

In the UK about 30,000 babies and children under five need hospital treatment every year due to RSV, though fewer than 90 now die from it.

Covid lockdowns left many with no immunity

Yet new figures show cases are higher than normal, and experts believe its because Covid lockdowns have left many children with no immunity.

In the week ending October 23, all cases of RSV increased by 8.3 per cent, according to the Health Service Journal (HSJ).

Lorna, a senior safety scientist, first noticed Caolan, then eight months, was ill in January 2021.

To begin with, she and husband Russell, 41, a police officer, brushed off his flu-like symptoms as a virus he would get over.

Id never even heard of RSV before, so I didnt even think he could have something more serious, she says. I know kids pick up viruses all the time and I didnt want to waste our GPs time.

But just a few days later Caolan deteriorated.

He was chesty, had a high temperature and laboured breathing, and would not feed, says Lorna. Then, during the night, terrifyingly she found him floppy.

An ambulance took Caolan to hospital where his oxygen levels, which had dropped, were monitored. He was also severely dehydrated, as he had been too bunged up to eat.

Doctors tried to hook Caolan up to feeding tubes but he passed out, which medics said was a stress response. Im quite a level-headed person, but at that point, I just broke, says Lorna.

I wasnt expecting him to get this ill, and I started panicking and crying.


The next day, when Caolans oxygen levels stabilised he was sent home. But they were back in hospital within hours, after his symptoms deteriorated.

It was only then that doctors diagnosed Caolan with RSV and again gave him oxygen. He was well enough to be discharged the next day.

Now, a year on, he is doing much better and hasnt been left with any long-term health issues.

Not all children are so lucky. RSV can lead to pneumonia, bronchiolitisand asthma, in both children and adults who survive it.

Lorna, alongside healthcare company Sanofi and its Together Against RSV campaign, is calling for antenatal classes to provide guidance on RSV and educate parents on the major symptoms, like laboured breathing.

She says: I was never told about common childhood illnesses to expect in the first year or two.

Some awareness on what to expect would have been so useful. We all know how overwhelmed the NHS is and it would be good to know when to use it and when to stay home.

This is something Christine Burlison, 36, also from Southampton, wishes she had been aware of, too. Her daughter Aria was 12 days old when she came down with RSV.

Lorna Smith had never heard of RSV before young son Caolan was struck down with it
Lorna says RSV wasnt even mentioned in her antenatal classes and is calling on the NHS to provide parents with better education

I knew something was off when she started struggling to breathe and making grunting noises, says Christine, who admits she was clueless about RSV.

No one had mentioned RSV to me during my pregnancy, not in antenatal or newborn first-aid classes, which is shocking, says the performing arts teacher, who is also mum to Jude, 20 months.

We initially thought it was a cold, she was sneezing and snotty, she remembers. But within hours, Christine and husband Tom, 34, an office manager, called an ambulance after Aria began screaming and crying before turning floppy and unresponsive.

I was so worried, says Christine. In hospital, Aria was given oxygen and monitored until her breathing stabilised.

Any parents worst nightmare is that your baby cant breathe and that was what we were dealing with, says Christine.

After seven days in hospital, Aria, now four, was sent home where it took her a few weeks to fully recover.

There are currently no available treatments or a cure for RSV.

But after decades of stalled progress, pharma giant Pfizer announced last week that its new RSV vaccine is 82 per cent effective at preventing infants needing a hospital stay, offering hope to parents all over the world.

Dr Chrissie Jones, a paediatric infectious disease expert at the University of Southampton, says the jab is an absolute game-changer.

She says: If this vaccine is approved by regulatory agencies, it would have a substantial impact on admissions to hospitals for RSV disease.
In the meantime, Christine is urging other parents to be wary with their newborns for the first few weeks and to restrict contact with those with colds.

She says: I wish I knew then that it isnt good to let your newborn meet loads of people and be held by so many people.

If I could do it again, I wouldnt have let so many friends and family meet Aria straight away.

Id keep her to myself for a while, to keep her safe.

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  1. Pingback: Sharp rise in babies at risk of serious health issues as 1 in 5 miss vital checks

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