If your own children cough heavily, breathe quickly, and get short of breath, the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) can be behind it. According to a study, the number of newborns and infants who had to be treated in a clinic because of the so-called RS virus increased drastically in Germany in the winter of 2022. One reason: Due to school closures and contact bans during the corona pandemic, significantly fewer children were infected with RSV the winter before last - this was then caught up and made up for in the winter that is now ending.
Extrapolated to all children living in Germany, around 17,000 children under the age of one had to be treated in hospital in the fourth quarter of 2022, according to an analysis commissioned by the health insurance company DAK-Gesundheit. That is five times more than in the same period in 2018. The proportion in intensive care units has increased by 350 percent.
For the DAK special analysis, scientists examined data from around 786,000 children and adolescents up to the age of 17. The years 2017 to 2022 were analyzed.
You can contract respiratory syncytial virus at any age, but the pathogen is particularly important in infants and small children. It can be a simple respiratory infection, but severe courses up to death are also possible. The RKI counts, for example, premature babies and children with previous lung diseases as high-risk patients, but also people with immunodeficiency or suppressed immune systems in general.
The study cites catch-up effects due to the corona pandemic as one of the reasons for this: Because the 2020/21 season for RS viruses was almost canceled due to the protective measures, said Thomas Fischbach, President of the Professional Association of Paediatricians. "The results show exactly what we experienced in the practices." The failure of the 2020/21 wave and the fact that the very strong 2021/22 wave was brought forward showed that there were considerable catch-up effects.
Johannes Liese, Head of the Department of Pediatric Infectious Diseases and Immunology at the University Hospital Würzburg, sees it similarly. Due to the school closures and contact bans during the corona pandemic, significantly fewer children were infected with RSV. "Catching up or catching up on these RSV infections after the relaxation of the corona measures led to an extremely sharp increase in RSV diseases in all age groups," said Liese.
The RKI states, citing estimates, that RSV respiratory diseases occur worldwide with an incidence of 48.5 cases and 5.6 severe cases per 1000 children in the first year of life. Normally, 50 to 70 percent would have had at least one infection with RSV within the first year of life and almost all children by the end of the second year of life. In the course of the corona protection measures, however, many such infections were temporarily absent.
DAK boss Andreas Storm urges a reaction. "Our analysis paints a dramatic picture and makes it clear that there is an acute need for political action," said Storm. “In the future, we must be better prepared for waves of infection in the hospital and outpatient sector. It is unacceptable that existing treatment places cannot be used due to a lack of staff. We absolutely have to avoid that in the future.”