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Statement: RSV in Southern District #2

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The Southern District Health Board is calling on the public to exercise extreme care when visiting its Children’s Wards, Neonatal and Neonatal Intensive Care and Critical Care Units in an effort to reduce transmission of RSV and other respiratory illnesses to these particularly vulnerable patients.

Southern DHB Paediatricians, Professor Barry Taylor (Dunedin) and Dr Ian Shaw (Southland), said Dunedin and Southland Hospitals are emphasising that whānau with any symptoms (runny nose or cough)  should not visit children in the Children’s Wards or patients in the Intensive Care and Critical Care Units.

While people with symptoms are generally discouraged from visiting someone in hospital at any time, it is particularly important right now, especially as school holidays start on Friday and are a time when we generally see an increase of children coming into our hospitals as visitors.

The Clinical Directors for Southern DHB Emergency Departments have noted that they are seeing a significant up-surge in presentations of patients from all age groups, particularly children, with likely viral respiratory infections compared to this time last year.

The Children’s Ward at Southland Hospital has been full this week, as the wave of respiratory illnesses in the North Island starts to make its way South. The Dunedin Children’s ward currently has spare capacity, but many children are being actively supported in the community.

In Dunedin Hospital, the Children’s Unit has been seeing an increase in children with breathing difficulties but is still within capacity. In Southland, 9/10 patients in isolation on the Children’s Ward are for respiratory illness.

The SDHB hospitals are working together to manage the increased number of children being seen and there may need to be some sharing of patients across the district.

“The increase in the number of children getting respiratory infections is usually seen every winter, with some further increase this year because very few children were exposed to respiratory viruses during the COVID 19 lockdown last winter.

“This tells us that the measures taken during lock-down were very effective at stopping these viruses from spreading and that where whānau members have symptoms, they can take similar measures to stop spreading their virus to other people.

“Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is probably the most common virus that circulates each winter, but there are others as well.  The spreading of these viruses is very similar, so the way of stopping the spread and protecting vulnerable babies under two years of age does not really differ,” Professor Taylor said.

Southern Community Laboratories’ Microbiologist, Dr James Ussher said, “the laboratory has noted an increase in RSV positive specimens in Southern since June 2021. In general, the laboratory only tests hospitalised patients, so these do not reflect total numbers in the community, which are likely to be significantly higher.

Meanwhile, Dr Susan Jack, Medical Officer of Health, Southern DHB is urging parents and caregivers with sick children who have a cold or cough to keep them warm at home and to seek medical attention if they get worse.

Some children who have been admitted to our hospitals have tested positive for RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) which causes infections in the lungs and airways. It is a common illness among young children, but some do get very sick with pneumonia or bronchiolitis.

Keeping children warm and in a smokefree environment at home is important. If they don’t get better, then please seek medical advice from a GP or call Healthline on 0800 611 116 for advice.

RSV and other viral respiratory illnesses usually clear up after a few days but can be severe in babies and smaller children. Whanau should seek urgent medical attention if their baby or child has:

  • Audible wheezing sounds
  • Breathing very fast
  • Difficulty breathing – the ribs seem to suck inwards when the child breathes in
  • Seems very unwell
  • Sluggish or lethargic
  • Not feeding well – less than half their normal feeds
  • Has not had a wet nappy for 6 hours

RSV and other respiratory viruses are contagious, so it is important to stay at home when sick and keep sick children at home, cough or sneeze into your elbow, and wash hands often.