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New Common Cold Virus Mistaken For Swine Flu

November 18, 2009

Medical experts said on Tuesday that children hospitalized at one U.S. hospital that were suspected of having swine flu in fact had a rhinovirus, better known as a common cold virus, Reuters reported.

Federal health investigators are trying to find out if a new strain of rhinovirus is responsible for hundreds of children treated at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, and if it is going on elsewhere in the country.

Dr. Susan Coffin, medical director of infection control and prevention at the hospital, said in early September they started seeing more children coming to their emergency room with significant respiratory illness.

Coffin said doctors and parents assumed it was the new pandemic H1N1 swine flu, which would be expected to re-emerge as schools began in September. But they soon found it was not.

Unlike most hospitals in the United States, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia runs a test that can diagnose 10 different respiratory viruses, including influenza, but also rhinoviruses, parainfluenza viruses and other germs cause illness in children.

Coffin said the data showed them it wasn’t H1N1 but rather a rhinovirus infection.

Experts say that the typical rhinovirus causes an annoying but benign illness that looks a lot like flu, but with a runnier nose and usually less of a fever. However, this particular strain was causing severe symptoms and even pneumonia.

Coffin said some of the kids had really bad wheezing and were hospitalized and treated with a nebulizer, which delivers drugs into the lungs to help keep oxygen in the blood.

“We don’t terribly often have large numbers of children test positive for it,” she said.

Coffin said around 500 kids had been hospitalized in September and October, with no reported deaths. But starting in mid-October, H1N1 swine flu started to show up as well.

CDC spokesman Dave Daigle said the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention were investigating the outbreak.

Daigle said that while rhinovirus outbreaks are common in the fall, the outbreak that occurred this year was unusually large and resulted in a lot of hospital admissions, including many children that required intensive care.

“We’re still testing the strains from the outbreak, but from what we’ve seen so far, it doesn’t appear that there’s a single predominant strain,” he said.

Although swine flu is above epidemic levels, only 30 percent of cases of so-called influenza-like illness that are tested actually turn out to be H1N1, according to the CDC.

Both Coffin and CDC officials say it is important for people not to assume if they or their children have flu-like symptoms that it was swine flu and that they do not need to be vaccinated.

An estimated 22 million people have been infected by H1N1 and at least 3,900 have died in the United States alone. Swine flu continues to spread globally and governments are just at the beginning of efforts to vaccinate people.

While rhinovirus has no vaccine and no good treatment, hospitals can treat some severely ill patients by trying to keep blood oxygen levels up and keeping them hydrated, often with intravenous lines if they are coughing or wheezing too hard to eat or drink.

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