The Enterovirus D68 that has been sweeping children across the country has claimed its first victim, a 4-year old boy from Hamilton Township in Mercer County, New Jersey, health officials revealed on Friday.
What is more alarming is that the patient did not show symptoms of infection by the respiratory disease, which has so far infected over 500 people in 43 states, most of whom were children. The virus is also particularly dangerous to children who have asthma or other health conditions but the child had no known health problems.
The preschooler, Eli Waller, appeared to be fine when he went to sleep on the night of Sept. 24 but his family found him dead the following morning. On Sept. 26, health authorities determined the cause of the child's death: enterovirus D68. The virus was first identified in 1962 and is characterized by mild to severe respiratory illnesses such as fever, sneezing, runny nose, muscle aches, wheezing and difficulty breathing.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has earlier said that there are four patients infected with the EV-D68 who have died. However, whether or not EV-D68 caused these deaths still remain unclear as investigations by state and local health officials are still underway.
Eli, who attended Yardville Elementary School, is the first person whose death was confirmed to be caused by EV-D68 with Mercer County medical examiner Raafat Ahmad certain about the role of the virus on the boy's death. Hamilton township health officer Jeff Plunkett said during a press conference on Saturday that the onset of the disease was very fast as the boy did not even show any signs of illness the night he died.
"He was asymptomatic and fine, and the next morning he had passed," Plunkett said. "The onset was very rapid and very sudden."
The boy's death has worsened fears of the virus. Besides concerns of the disease spreading, there are also fears that the EV-D68 is behind paralysis in some children. Making matters worse is the unavailability of a vaccine that could prevent infection and medicine that could effectively treat the virus.
Health experts, however, said that observing good hygiene such as washing of the hands frequently and thoroughly is crucial for preventing infection because the virus is spread through respiratory secretions and excrements. In New Jersey, health officials are already taking precautions following Eli's death.
"I just thought it was prudent, along with superintendent, to clean and sanitize that child's classroom, just as a preventative measure; as a calming measure," Plunkett said.