Amid concerns that Covid may return in full force this winter along with rising flu cases, threatening to put extra pressure on health services, an expert has told Express.co.uk that there is another virus that poses a greater risk to children that could be added into the mix. Respiratory Syncytial Virus Infection (RSV) is an infection that’s normally mild, but can cause pneumonia and swelling of the airwaves in babies, the elderly, and vulnerable people.
While mild in some cases, it is the leading cause of infant hospitalisations in the UK and close to a third of under-fives with respiratory symptoms swabbed as part of UKHSA surveillance test positive.
With Covid and flu threatening to trigger a “twindemic”, as some experts have warned, high vaccination levels have meant that large swathes of the population are well protected from the two diseases. But both viruses are also unlikely to cause severe illness in young people.
But Prof Francois Balloux, Director, UCL Genetics Institute said that RSV is a completely different story. He told Express.co.uk: “RSV is a leading cause of child hospitalisation and the virus kills over 100,000 children each year globally. That’s more than 50 times as many children than those who died from Covid throughout the pandemic. It’s a far bigger threat to young children than Covid or seasonal flu.”
And he warned that it may be difficult to prevent the spread unless action is taken to roll out a vaccine as soon as possible, or else “disruptive measures” will need to be taken if cases continue to rise.
He said: “RSV is highly contagious and the majority of children experience an RSV infection before the age of 2 years. It’s not obvious that its spread can be suppressed without enforcing highly disruptive measures. There is hope RSV child hospitalisations and deaths will decrease in the future with new RSV vaccines being rolled out soon.”
Recent figures from the UK Health Security Agency indicate nearly a third of under-fives currently have RSV, with 7.4 percent of the general population infected with the disease overall. With cases of this disease rising, it comes at the same time as flu levels have hit levels higher than normal after two years of lockdown, while over two million people in the UK have Covid.
But this does not necessarily mean that a “tripledemic” is coming our way. Professor Amitava Banerjee, from the Institute of Health Informatics and UCL, told Express.co.uk: “In my view the word “tripledemic” is just the latest soundbite and we do not necessarily know that RSV will be as big a threat.
“I think far greater potential threats to the NHS is due to chronic underfunding, chronic understaffing and the indirect and long-term effects of COVID.”
However, parents are certainly concerned by the prospect of soaring RSV cases this winter. Victoria Fuller, a mum-of-one, told Express.co.uk: “My daughter has had five bugs in the space of eight weeks – at least three of those have been of the respiratory kind.
“It’s a scary time for parents who are trying to be vigilant against these extra illnesses going around, but at the same time, life has to go on. No nursery would mean no work for me – and with the cost of living crisis well underway, that’s just not an option.”
And while RSV infection is common in children, the UKSHA has previously warned that antibodies that develop following early childhood infection do not prevent further RSV infections throughout life.
Speaking about the tripledemic, Emeritus Professor Ron Eccles told the Daily Mail: “When lots of people get ill at the same time, and particularly during the winter, the pressure on health services can be very intense.”
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Cheryl Watler, a virologist from the University of Hull, previously told Express.co.uk that the prospect of Covid and flu combining this winter could result of tough restrictions to limit the spread. When asked whether we could see another lockdown, she replied: “This is a possibility with potential for significant impact on health services should it occur. The Southern hemisphere have experienced a difficult Influenza season.
“But, the good news is that there is a prominent campaign to vaccinate at-risk individuals from Influenza, as there is with the COVID boosters, and that this year’s vaccine is a good match for the seasonal flu that is dominant this year.
“Autumn and winter typically are the times of year when the incidence of respiratory viruses increases. As we’ve seen in the winter of 2020-21, we are already seeing an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases with an expectation that this will further increase into winter. “