Doctors are calling on people to keep up their COVID-19-time routine to limit the spread of viruses

Off the back of a year of COVID-19 infections, social distancing and lockdowns, we’re back to a more “normal” year — but with “waned immunity”.

Key points:

  • RSV typically affects infants and young children
  • The virus seems to be affecting people earlier in the season than usual
  • Doctors are calling on people to keep up their COVID-19-time routine to limit the spread of viruses

Experts say that because in 2020 we were not exposed to viruses and infections — other than COVID-19 — at the usual rate, many people have become so-called “naive” to them.

This is most apparent in the recent “large resurgence” of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) — a virus that typically affects infants and young children.

RSV presents with flu-like symptoms, such as a runny nose, fever, cough and wheeze.

It is one of the most common reasons for children to be admitted to hospital, and in developing countries, it is “quite a common” cause of infant mortality.

Dr Hannah Moore, the co-head of the epidemiology of infectious diseases at Telethon Kids Institute, said initial COVID-19 lockdowns had resulted in a “dramatic” 98 percent decline of RSV detections.

But that was no longer the case. In fact, the virus seems to be making a comeback earlier in the season than usual.

“Since about September we’ve seen a very large resurgence of RSV across Australia,” Dr Moore said.

“This is very uncharacteristic of RSV. It’s traditionally a winter virus, where we see very high peaks in the middle of winter in the temperate climate.”

She said the trend had been detected across the country; initially in New South Wales and Western Australia and more recently in Victoria, Queensland and Tasmania.

Tasmania’s Director of Public Health, Dr Mark Veitch, said this year alone, there had been around 300 detections of RSV in the state.

“We [had] hardly any RSV in Tasmania last year so we probably had a population of young children who hadn’t had a recent encounter with it and probably were more susceptible as a result,” he said.A brightly coloured illustration shows a virus molecule, including surface spikes.

Dr Moore said the babies who were born during the height of the pandemic, when social distancing was at its most intense, would likely not have been exposed to the virus — meaning there were more infants and children at once who were likely to get it.

“We’ve now got a larger population that has been immune to RSV, that haven’t seen RSV before — so the general population’s immunity level is quite low,” she said.

She also suggested international arrivals into Australia could have brought the virus with them, introducing it to the wider community.

“As people have been introduced from international areas back to Australia, they’ve been tested for COVID, they haven’t been tested for other viruses,” she said.

Launceston-based GP Judith Watson said the spike in RSV detections could be the first indication people had become complacent about their hygiene they so keenly embraced when the pandemic first hit.

“When we had an initial lockdown a year ago, we were very vigilant with our social distancing, our etiquette in terms of coughing, hand hygiene and that did carry on for quite some time,” she said.

“I do think that perhaps the relaxation of some of these measures were definitely attributable to some of the increases that we did see.”

With the flu-season ahead, Dr Watson called on people to keep up their COVID-time routine to limit the spread of the viruses.

“If you are unwell and you have been tested for COVID and that’s come back negative, you still need to stay at home because you still are infectious from whatever the virus you have is,” she said.

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