How lockdowns left babies more vulnerable to respiratory disease

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Lockdowns have clearly disrupted the normal cycle. Infections normally rise in the early months of the year, with a particular spike in January, says  Dr Whittamore. But last winter there was very little RSV, probably as a result of lockdowns. Then, when restrictions were lifted in early 2021, doctors saw a resurgence in RSV-caused bronchiolitis in July. “That’s really unusual – we never normally see summer peaks,” he says. “Because of all the Covid restrictions, we’ve been spreading viruses less, so we think that everybody’s natural immunity to viruses like RSV has gone down.”

Since then, he says: “It’s been bumbling along at a reasonably high level for a few months. Our worry is that it’s now going to kick off and cause a big spike towards the end of January.”

Dr Whittamore predicts that RSV will affect more children this year and that those children may on average suffer more serious symptoms. Doctors fear an increase in RSV-caused hospital admissions this year. 

Already, the British Lung Foundation has seen a 400 per cent increase in calls related to bronchiolitis-like symptoms over the last three months, compared to the same period a year earlier (though some of this rise might be explained by increased media attention on the virus).

Other experts believe the increase in parents reporting respiratory issues in their children may in part be explained by psychological factors. Parents have probably lowered their “threshold for anxiety” after 18 months of Covid, Damian Roland, professor of paediatric emergency medicine at the University of Leicester, told The Telegraph earlier this week.

So what can be done? In most cases, mild symptoms will go away by themselves after about five days, though a cough may linger. “As long as those children are not struggling with their breathing, they’re feeding fine, they’re not getting dehydrated, then they’re absolutely fine to be looked after at home,” says Dr Whittamore.

“However, if the child’s breathing becomes more laboured, if they’re starting to feed less well, or they’re more sleepy than normal, or they’re getting dehydrated, or even if the parents are just a bit anxious about a child, then I’d encourage them to contact their GP or call 111 for some advice.”

Dr Whittamore also suggests that adults suffering from a respiratory infection should consider avoiding young children if possible this winter. “With Covid, we have learned a little bit more about not spreading viruses. Around young children, you don’t really want to be giving them an illness that could make them very unwell and put them in hospital, even if for most people it is a mild illness.”

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