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Health officials grapple with HRSV virus — 500 new infections in one week

Officials at Helsinki's Children's Hospital are currently treating 15 babies under the age of 12 months for HRSV, which can cause respiratory tract infections.

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Image: Arja Lento / Yle

Health officials have seen an alarming increase in the number of cases involving HRSV infections, according to the National Institute for Health and Welfare, THL. Specialist Niina Ikonen said that more than 500 cases were recorded in the infectious diseases register last week alone.

The HRSV virus can cause respiratory tract infections in people of all ages. However in small children and the elderly, it can cause complications such as pneumonia. Older children and other adults may experience milder symptoms of infection, including a runny nose or throat pain.

According to Harry Saxén, a professor of paediatric infectious diseases and medical chief of staff at Helsinki’s Children’s Hospital, the HRSV outbreak has so far been mainly confined to Helsinki.

Saxén told Yle that there are currently just over a dozen children under the age of 12 months with HRSV infections at the hospital.

“At the moment we are treating about 15 children. In my view that’s a lot. In worse years we have had 30 patients at a time,” he added.

Biennial peak in infections

The physician said that it is difficult to estimate whether the contagion has peaked or if more cases will emerge. He noted that it is typical for infections to decrease every other year and for the disease to occasionally rear its head.

“We have seen annual cases of HRSV but the epidemic is greater every other year. So this would be a time for a bigger outbreak so to speak. We have to assume that this winter will produce more infections that the same time last year,” added the THL’s Ikonen.

The viral infection is especially intransigent among children under the age of 12 months. The first symptoms usually include difficulty eating, so children cannot breast feed and they wheeze, Saxén explained.

There is no known treatment for the disease. Patients are treated at hospital with oxygen and by aspirating any phlegm that accumulates. Saxén urged the parents of young infants to reconsider visiting homes or other locations where others have flu-like symptoms.

“The disease is generally transmitted by family members. I would not deliberately go to places where a lot of people have the flu, but that may be difficult in practice. After all, you can’t bottle up children,” he remarked.

The THL said that health centres across the country have also reported a significant rise in patients of all ages coming in with the flu.

Ikonen said that four strains of the virus are currently circulating in Finland: two type A strains and two type B strains, with one of the type B infections outstripping the others.

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