Cases of a respiratory virus affecting children are increasing alarmingly across the Bay, with hospitals bringing in extra beds to cope and days-old babies among the sick.
The Bay of Plenty District Health Board says cases of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) have continued to rise this week after last week noting the recent re-emergence of the virus - not seen last year..
The virus has been described as highly infectious, causing cold-like symptoms in adults but posing a greater risk to the more commonly affected children and babies who may develop breathing problems.
A Tauranga mother whose chronically ill son caught RSV said the hospital paediatrics ward is twice as full as the same time last year.
Speaking anonymously to protect her child's privacy, she said they were initially in the ward for complications of his chronic illness.
"My child has caught RSV, so he's quite unwell now.
"The ward is over-capacity most days, they are using an overflow room from the neighbouring ward. The staff are having to take on more patients than is recommended, with some being called in on their days off."
Bay of Plenty health board specialist infection prevention and control clinical nurse Robyn Boyne said the emergency department and paediatric ward were affected by the rise in cases.
"We have seen a large number of cases either presenting in ED and or admitted since the end of May, but increasing numbers since June 20."
The ward had initiated its response plan due to the high demand.
"We have the additional capacity, or 'swing beds', in another hospital ward which are designated for this purpose and deliberately set up so that both wards can safely use them if and when required."
Last week she said 14 children and two adults had presented with RSV at Tauranga and Whakatāne Hospitals.
"This time two years ago we had seen 26 children and 10 adults presenting with RSV."
The health board was not able to provide updated case numbers yesterday.
Boyne said the age of patients ranged from 10 days to five years old. Adults aged between 34 and 93 had also been admitted but often had underlying medical conditions.
Most patients were hospitalised for one or two days but some stayed longer.
The Lakes district has also seen a spike in cases, leaving some children in intensive care and others transferred to Starship Hospital.
Rotorua paediatrician Dr Steve Bradley described RSV as a "really nasty and highly contagious" virus that affected but was not isolated to children.
He said cases had "exploded" since the first was noted on June 11, with up to seven patients a day now being admitted.
"While it causes a fairly mild cold and maybe a mild chest infection in adults, young children and particularly babies can get really sick with it as it causes a narrowing of the breathing tubes, which are already tiny in small babies."
Some children would come on to the ward for fluids, either through a tube in their nose or occasionally an IV line, but others would also need extra oxygen.
Western Bay of Plenty Primary Health Organisation clinical director Andrew Corin said there had been an increase in children under five presenting with fevers, coughs and nasal congestion over the past week.
"One GP clinic has seen 30 such cases in its acute service in the past four days; Accident and Healthcare will have much higher presentations.
"Based on known prevalence data, the most common cause will be RSV. Most children will have been exposed to RSV by the age of three, and in young children it can cause serious illnesses such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia."
Corin said this was an increase in usual patterns from recent years but the advice was to stay at home unless the child was very unwell.
"Children at risk of complications, such as premature infants and those with other health problems, should see the doctor right away."
Ōtumoetai Kindergarten head teacher Summer Ioelu was not aware of any children being diagnosed with RSV at her centre but said many were off sick.
"I think it's worse this time because last winter we had no germs at all because of Covid and I think our immunity has got low.
"I know in Tauranga there has been so much sickness in the past three weeks. Our attendance has been pretty good but I have been sending children home if I know their siblings are sick or it's still hanging around because all our teachers are going down now too."
Dr Sue Huang, Institute of Environmental Science and Research virologist, said like influenza RSV was imported from overseas.
"When we opened the bubble with Australia, they have some RSV, so the people coming in probably brought the virus.
"It is around the same time the bubble opened that coincides with the virus appearing in our community."
She said usually children experienced episodes of RSV in their first two years of life but last year there was a cohort of young babies who were never exposed to the virus due to Covid-fighting measures including the lockdown.
"So not only are you getting those children who have delayed exposure of RSV but also the group of babies born after them being exposed," Huang said.
Toi Te Ora Public Health medical officer of health Dr Jim Miller said RSV was not a notifiable disease and therefore he did not have statistics on the number of RSV cases in the community.
"We are aware from communication with local laboratories that there is RSV in the community at present."
MIller said Covid-19 protocols and restrictions appeared to have a flow-on effect in preventing other respiratory infections, likely including RSV.
"We may be seeing an increase in RSV and other viral infections this year as people are once again interacting in closer proximity, which leads to easier transmission."
Tips for keeping RSV at bay:
The usual symptoms of fever, cough, snotty nose and headache will settle in seven to 14 days.
• Children should stay away from childcare and school until symptoms are better.
• It spreads easily, so attention to hand washing and avoiding close contact with others is important.
• Asthma medications like puffers don't help those diagnosed with RSV (unless diagnosed asthmatic), nor do antibiotics, as this is a viral infection. There is also no immunisation.