Patrick Vallance warns coronavirus deaths will still rise
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Hospitals across the country have been flooded with babies with a potentially-deadly respiratory virus. Wellington has recorded 46 children hospitalised with respiratory illnesses including respiratory syncytial virus – also known as RSV.
RSV is a common respiratory illness and in adults only produces very mild symptoms but for young children, it can make them extremely ill or even be fatal.
Doctors have warned New Zealand’s outbreak is likely due to children not developing immunity to other viruses suppressed by Covid lockdowns.
Epidemiologist and public health professor Michael Baker said: “What we’re seeing now is we’ve accumulated a whole lot of susceptible children that have missed out on exposure – so now they’re seeing it for the first time.”
Lockdowns in New Zealand last winter led to a 99.9 percent reduction in flu cases and a 98 percent reduction in RSV.
But over the past five weeks, New Zealand has reported nearly 1,000 RSV cases, according to the Institute of Environmental Science and Research.
Middlemore hospital in Auckland has converted a playroom into a clinical space with 11 special care baby cots.
Heath boards across Auckland and Canterbury have also postponed surgeries to divert resources into children’s wards.
According to the Guardian, some hospitals have asked children under 12 not to visit in a bid to stop the spread of the virus.
John Tait, chief medical officer for the Wellington area’s district health boards, said the region had 46 children hospitalised.
He confirmed two were in intensive care and the numbers were “continually changing as patients are discharged and others admitted.”
Professor Baker added: “If you get a big peak it can overwhelm your health system, or put real pressure on it, which we’re seeing with RSV.”
He added how people experience near-universal exposure to RSV as children and said most are exposed in their first year of life.
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Professor Baker continued: “If you remove that exposure for a period then you will have a bigger cohort of unexposed children, and therefore – as you can see we have happening at the moment – it can sustain a much bigger outbreak when they are eventually exposed to the virus.”
New Zealand’s director-general of health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield, said he was “certainly concerned about the sharp surge in RSV cases”.
He said: “We had very little RSV last year.
“There’s some speculation that [the current outbreak] may be partly exacerbated by the fact we didn’t have any last year and so there is a bigger pool of children who are susceptible to it.”
Back in May, a collective of French doctors wrote a study of immunity debt and said: “This positive collateral effect in the short term is welcome, as it prevents additional overload of the healthcare system.
“The lack of immune stimulation… induced an ‘immunity debt’ which could have negative consequences when the pandemic is under control and [public health intervientions] are lifted.
“The longer these periods of ‘viral or bacterial low-exposure’ are, the greater the likelihood of future epidemics.”
Australia has also experienced a surge, with hospitals in Victoria being overcrowded by unusually high rates of RSV.
New Zealand has managed to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
To date, there have been 2,408 confirmed cases of the virus with just 26 deaths.
As of 25 June 2021, a total of 1,090,651 vaccine doses have been administered.
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