Health officials baffled by increase in respiratory cases

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By Elesha George

Health officials in Antigua and Barbuda are still trying to determine what is causing young children to exhibit an increase in respiratory illnesses.

Head of the Pediatric Department at the Mount St. John’s Medical Centre (MSJMC) Dr Shivon Belle-Jarvis told OBSERVER media that it is unusual for so many children to seek medical attention so early in the year.

“For the past maybe two to three weeks, we’ve noticed that children have presented with anything ranging from fast breathing, shortness of breath, wheezing, and in some cases having very low oxygen levels,” she said. “Several diagnoses have been made to include bronchiolitis, which is basically the smaller airways becoming swollen or inflamed, bronchopneumonia or chest infection and we’ve even noticed that several persons have had asthma attacks. For us it’s a bit surprising because especially for bronchiolitis, we do know that the virus that causes this tends to be more prevalent or more commonly seen anywhere from November to March, so we’re actually starting a month to six weeks early, which for us is very surprising.”

She continued: “This influx is not only seen at the Mount St John’s Medical Centre but even in discussions with private pediatricians, they are seeing it as well. For the past month you can definitely say that it was almost an even split between cases of probable dengue as well as respiratory cases.”

Dr Belle-Jarvis is asking parents to look out for red flags, things that may cause children to need medical care, which would include fast breathing, wheezing, shortness of breath, fever, irritability or the child may turn blue.

She said while health authorities cannot say for sure what is causing this increased, they are aware of several factors that will put children primarily, at risk. The risk is especially higher for premature infants, babies who are less than 28 days and who have recently come out of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). Infants under one year old and any child who has underlying condition to include heart disease are also at increased risk.

For mothers who would have just given birth, the pediatrician recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months. She said this could help boost the baby’s immune system and protect them against infection. She also encouraged vaccination.

Importantly parents are asked not to send their sick children to school and to enforce the use of handwashing.

“We do know, as well, that in our community setting many children even though they are ill, they still go to school, so once you start having an influx, because you know respiratory illnesses are transmitted via the air in droplets, once you have a child who is very ill going to school, then it’s very easily transmittable amongst other children.”

Out of concern, Belle-Jarvis said “We don’t want the public to be scared, but we do want them to know that chest infections or pneumonia are not something to be played with.”

According to the doctor, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has reported that three million children worldwide die because of pneumonia, while the World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that it is the second leading cause of death in children less than five years old.

The good news is that once pneumonia or a chest infection is appropriately treated then most patients fully recover.

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