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EV-D68: The (Not) New Disease to (Not) Panic About

by Mike Rothschild

September 16, 2014

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Donate Spreading like a brush fire on a hot day, the virus jumped from place to place and person to person with ease, sickening people before they knew what hit them. Scientists struggled to figure out what it was and how to treat it, but even as scores of seriously ill children went to the hospital, they knew one thing: it didn't have a cure.

Is it ebola? H1N1? Some kind of "Walking Dead" zombie plague? No, it's the respiratory virus EV-D68, a rare form of the common cold that can cause severe breathing problems in children. It was first seen in Illinois and Missouri in August, and since then, the CDC has confirmed its presence in 100 patients across seven states as of a few days ago. Hundreds more young people in a dozen states have either been seen or admitted with unexplained respiratory problems, and numerous other states have sent samples to the CDC for confirmation. All of the cases have been in children, many of whom already have asthma or other breathing issues

Any time a rare or mostly unknown disease spreads quickly and infects children, the news media will jump all over it. Fueled by misinformation, politicization and old fashioned lies, the disease's reputation starts to precede it and people start to panic. Conspiracy theories sprout, fingers are pointed and fear becomes the order of the day.

First, some simple facts. The "EV" in EV-D68 stands for "enterovirus." The "D" signifies that this particular strain is in the enterovirus D genus, and the 68 means it's the 68th such virus identified. So the scary sounding name is really just an identifier for what exactly we're dealing with, not some super-secret code name or government designation.

With that out of the way, what's an enterovirus? Essentially, it's a general term for a virus that starts in the intestinal tract. They're divided by two types, polio and non-polio. The first, obviously, is what causes polio. The other, nonpolio enterovirus, is responsible for everything from the common cold to pericarditis to hand, foot and mouth disease. It's also the cause of non-polio paralysis that's been wrongly linked to the Gates Foundation's vaccination campaign in Africa.

Millions of Americans deal with an enterovirus every year, usually manifesting itself as a cold. Most people recover from them quickly without medical intervention, but occasionally they can become much more serious, requiring hospitalization. The most efficient way to prevent coming down with an enterovirus is good hygiene — washing your hands with hot water and soap, covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze and not going to work when sick.

This particular strain was discovered in California in 1962, and while rare, has cropped up in small clusters in the US before. According to the CDC, there were 79 reports of EV-D68 between 2009 and 2013. It's also likely there were more cases of it, but the vast majority of colds and lingering bugs are never tested, so we never find out what strain of enterovirus they are. What we're dealing with is basically a rarer strain of the same common cold that hits US schools every late-summer and early fall, when kids are going back into confined spaces with a lot of other kids, and maybe not always washing their hands when they go to the bathroom.

While it's certainly terrifying for the parents of any child who has to be hospitalized because of it, some kind of cold strain hits young kids every year around this time. Yes, this particular one is more rare and more serious, but it's nothing that professionals who deal with infectious diseases don't recognize and prepare for.

Of course, medical professionals not panicking over something doesn't mean anyone else won't. And if you judge this outbreak solely by the headlines on mainstream news sites, it's much worse than it actually is. A simple search for EV-D68 brings up scare headlines like:
Virus hospitalizes hundreds of kids in Midwest and South — The Washington Post
Rare Respiratory Virus EV-D68 Spreads to Northeast — Gawker
Mystery Virus EV D68 Still Plaguing At Least 12 States —
Virus hitting the U.S. could be 'tip of iceberg,' CDC official says — CNN Health
Serious respiratory virus, EV D68, confirmed in Albany — Albany Times Union
All of these headlines, while technically true (it is rare, it can be serious, kids have gone to the hospital) are misleading. One imagines a rapidly-spreading plague killing everyone in its path, and that's just not what we're dealing with.

The farther to the fringes you go when looking for news about EV-D68, the fringier the news gets. One especially nonsensical and incredibly racist strain of nonsense blames the spread of the virus on illegal immigration, specifically the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Latin America attempting to cross into the US through Mexico — children who are supposedly unvaccinated and carrying all sorts of horrible diseases with them.

While a debate about what to do regarding illegal immigration isn't germane to this post (nor appropriate for Skeptoid), this particular strain of Brown Scare can be easily debunked.

I couldn't find any reputable source that identifies any kind of unusual outbreak or cluster of EV-D68 in any Central or South American country, though there have been outbreaks in Japan and Europe. Anyone who claims that enteroviruses are "common" in countries of origin for immigrants is cherry picking, since they're common everywhere (again, we're dealing with the common cold here.) Additionally, the outbreaks of EV-D68 have been mostly in states far from the border — places like Missouri, Illinois, Kansas and Colorado. There have been (as of now) no confirmed cases reported in states where most of these children are.

Of course, whenever you start talking about children and vaccines, there will be as many people who blame the outbreak on kids who HAVE been vaccinated. And so our friends at Natural News and InfoWars have been publishing scare stories about how the virus is "exploding" among "vaccinated children." This is true, since the vast majority of children who happen to have come down with the virus also happen to be vaccinated. It's also true that the virus is "exploding" among children with two eyes, ten fingers and ten toes — since the vast majority of children have two eyes, ten fingers and ten toes. Are either of those completely true facts relevant to the spread of EV-D68? From a scientific standpoint, no, they aren't.

To try and link vaccination with the common cold is typical anti-vax nonsense. Vaccination doesn't make kids "more vulnerable" to getting a cold. There's no scientific reason why that would be true. Additionally, many of the sites linking EV-D68 with vaccination are also quick to point out that thousands of unvaccinated children are crossing from Mexico into the US. This is typical of the cognitive dissonance that addles the brains of conspiracy theorists — both vaccinating and not vaccinating are the cause of a pandemic.

In the real world, the cause of this particular outbreak is something kids and parents deal with year after year — the back to school cold. And the same precautions should be taken as with every year: wash hands with hot water and soap, cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough, stay home if you're sick and go to the ER if you don't get better.

And don't listen to people telling you to panic, because they're wrong.

10/6/14 Edit: Fellow Skeptoid blogger Steven Propatier, who happens to be an actual doctor, as opposed to an internet doctor, wrote a great piece on some of the more technical aspects of EVD-68, as well as getting into the reasons why a child who was diagnosed with it died.

by Mike Rothschild

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