Adenoviruses have been around since 1953, but many of us haven’t heard about it or seen it in the news lately, until now.
In 2018, ongoing outbreaks in two states have put the virus in the public light again. The University of Maryland confirmed 22 cases of the virus during the last week of November/first week of December 2018. One of the infected students, a freshman, died from the virus. The campus outbreak follows a rash of infections at the Wanaque Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation’s Pediatric Center in New Jersey. Eleven children at the facility have died, and 25 other children and one staff member have become sick. But what is adenovirus, and who is at risk?
Adenovirus refers to a cluster of viruses — more than 50 known strains — that most commonly infect the respiratory system. Each strain may bring about a different set of symptoms, such as the common cold, sore throat, fever, bronchitis, and pneumonia. Other strains might lead to pinkeye, diarrhea, and, in rare cases, brain and spinal cord infections.
Some strains, such as type 7, can cause more serious illness than others. Although serious adenovirus illnesses are less common, people with weakened immune systems, or existing respiratory or cardiac disease, are at higher risk of developing severe and life-threatening infections.
The New Jersey children and at least four University of Maryland students have this strain. A handful of strains are more commonly associated with outbreaks. Most cases of the virus are mild. Severe infections like those in New Jersey and Maryland are less common.
“These adenoviruses seem to cause quite serious infections in people whose immune systems are compromised, whether from medical treatment, such as chemotherapy, or from an underlying health condition,” says Andi Shane, MD, who specializes in pediatric infectious diseases at Emory University School of Medicine and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.
The New Jersey children who died had serious medical conditions and weak immune systems. “It’s the worst combination at Wanaque, where you have severe type 7 and immunocompromised children with a lot of medical needs,” says Shereef Elnahal, MD, the New Jersey state health commissioner.
Similarly, the University of Maryland student who died took immune-suppressing drugs to treat her Crohn’s disease, according to news reports.
“Once the virus gets into the body of someone who can’t control it well, it triggers respiratory failure,” says Shane. “If the virus gets into the lung cells, it can destroy those air cells. It makes air exchange difficult.”
So how do you treat it?
There is currently no adenovirus vaccine available to the general public.
A vaccine specific for adenovirus types 4 and 7 was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in March 2011, for use only in U.S. military personnel who may be at higher risk for infection from these two adenovirus types. For more information about the vaccine, see Adenovirus Vaccine Information Statement (VIS).
Follow simple steps to protect yourself and others
You can protect yourself and others from adenoviruses and other respiratory illnesses by following a few simple steps:
– Wash your hands often with soap and water (see CDC’s Clean Hands Save Lives! )
– Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands