If health professionals could know when there would be an influx of patients — to then be prepared for the spike — could there be less of a strain on the health-care system?
That’s the question a University of Alberta research team has tried to answer when it comes to respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) within babies.
Pediatrics professor and lead researcher Michael Hawkes examined the seasonal pattern of respiratory viruses from clinical lab data analyzed from more than 37,000 patients in Alberta between the years 2005 to 2017.
Of those, the seasonal pattern was discovered in more than 10,000 babies hospitalized for RSV.
“It’s a well-known fact (among the medical community) that in December and January, the hospital wards are packed with infants with RSV,” Hawkes explained.
“The virus is responsible for sending one per cent of infants worldwide to hospital. It strikes like clockwork in the winter months, so we wanted to examine this behaviour more deeply.”
According to his research, Hawkes says stints of respiratory illness from six viruses that were analyzed by the U of A team all peaked in January and hit a low in June. However, they also noticed a trend in that the peaks are worse every second year.
“From a high year of infection, there is a large number of people with immunity going into the next season, which means low levels of infection. But a low infection year would be followed by low levels of immunity and high levels of disease in the subsequent year — an alternating pattern based on transient immunity.”
According to the study, babies born in January had a higher risk of hospitalization from the virus than those born in June, and infants born in severe peak years were more likely to be infected and hospitalized.
Hawkes says by understanding the seasonal patterns, it has the potential to allow health-care providers to “ramp up” RSV immunizations along with pushing out more public health messaging surrounding measures like handwashing.
“(It could) also help with planning: how many nurses and beds we are going to need in a given year.”
RSV likely to be high this year
Cases of RSV are likely to be high this winter, Hawkes predicted, noting immunity is low given that COVID-19 restrictions kept many people at home and out of school last year, reducing cases of the illness.
“Based on the implications of our work, the health-care system should prepare for a wave,” Hawkes said.
“COVID-19, like its cousins, is a respiratory virus and is likely to follow similar patterns as these other six viruses, so we could expect winter peaks and summer lows for COVID going forward, under natural conditions, without vaccine intervention.”
Hawkes noted that while the coronaviruses the researchers studied are responsible for less serious illnesses like the common cold and flu, the findings could potentially help hospitals brace for future seasonal waves of COVID-19 or other emerging pathogens.