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Enterovirus D68: The rare virus that has killed more people in the US than Ebola

Children's Hospital Colorado is seeing high numbers of respiratory illnesses.
Children's Hospital Colorado is seeing high numbers of respiratory illnesses.
Cyrus McCrimmon/Denver Post

There is a lot of panic right now about Ebola in the United States. But a mysterious new virus — one that's rare and spreading quickly in children for no clear reason — has quietly become a public health threat.

Enterovirus D68 has, since August, infected hundreds of children in 43 states. Usually leading to severe respiratory illness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just confirmed that the virus also caused the death of a New Jersey four-year-old, despite the fact that the child showed no signs of the disease.

Four other kids infected with EV-D68 have died, though the role the virus played in their deaths is still unclear.

This makes Eli Waller, the New Jersey preschooler, the first confirmed fatality from an uncommon virus in its largest-ever outbreak, leaving researchers stumped about the full range of EV-D68's causes and symptoms.

Enterovirus D68 is rare

First detected in 1962, EVD-68 has only occasionally surfaced, and usually only in a few people, which means the scientific community is still learning about the virus.

It's one strain of a class of viruses — enteroviruses — which are common, causing everything from encephalitis to viral meningitis and summertime colds.

But this particular strain of enterovirus is rare, making its sudden appearance concerning, particularly for parents.

Since August, for reasons that are still unclear, more than 500 children in 43 states have become infected. Cases started to appear in Missouri and Illinois and then, over the last month, spread across the US, involving young kids of both sexes. Many of them have had a history of asthma or wheezing.

Symptoms are mostly "cold like" but could include paralysis

So far, symptoms mainly appear to be similar to respiratory illness, like a really severe cold. The children usually get a runny nose, coughing and wheezing, muscle aches and pains, and less commonly, fever. EV-D68 also spreads like a cold — through respiratory secretions, such as coughing, sneezing, or touching an infected surface.

Officials are also investigating whether EV-D68 caused muscle weakness and Polio-like paralysis in several children in Boston and Colorado. They aren't sure whether the virus caused these symptoms, or whether it's an association, but the link has been found in several cases this year.

There's not much you can do to treat EV-D68.
There are no vaccines or antiviral treatments, so the main type of care is supportive, which means paying attention to symptoms and making sure those infected get proper fluids and help breathing, if necessary.

Enterovirus D68 is mysterious

Health officials don't yet know why the virus made an appearance this summer and why it has since spread across the country.

The link between the virus and death in children is also a mystery. Waller, the four-year-old who died, is the first documented EV-D68 death in the US. Even more confusingly, he had none of the cold-like symptoms associated with the virus.

The boy went to bed one night and his parents found him dead the next day. He had pink eye, so he was kept home from school but his mom and dad had no idea he had also been infected with EV-D68.

Still, officials were able to confirm that the virus caused his death. In particular, EV-D68 led to brain and lymph node swelling in Waller.

In addition to Waller, the virus has been detected in the bodies of four other children who died. In these cases, the virus did not necessarily cause death.

As one New Jersey health official told ABC News, "I think Eli's case is the exception to the other cases around the country. He had no signs of any illness that night, and his passing was sudden and shocking."

To learn more, read our story: "What we know and don't know about EVD-68."

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