As children have returned to school for the fall season, cases of a rare respiratory illness continue to be reported in a mysterious epidemic that began over the summer. The symptoms are asthma-like, requiring some children to use respirators in order to breathe. At least five deaths due to the virus have been confirmed.
The illness is being caused by enterovirus D68. Since mid-August, at least 691 people across 46 states have been stricken with the virus.
This is the first time this particular strain of enterovirus has spread so rapidly over such a short amount of time, and hospitals do not have the facilities to check for D68. The CDC has been struggling with a backlog of samples that need to be tested to determine if the patients are positive for the strain, making diagnosis and proper treatment difficult.
The old tests, which have been used in the past decade, were labor and time intensive. Only 40 kits could be processed in a day and patients had to wait weeks before the results were returned.
The new test is quicker and allows the CDC to look at multiple samples at the same time in order to speed up the process and ensure that doctors and parents of the stricken children get the most accurate results in the fastest time possible.
Because the CDC will be able to process their backlog quickly with the new test, the number of positive D68 cases may spike significantly over the coming weeks. Although it is not expected to help those currently infected, the CDC hopes that the faster test will enable them to better track the movement of the virus and monitor the rate and spread of new infections.
In a telephone interview, Dr. Steve Oberste shared that the test is "mainly for surveillance purposes. Faster testing could help more quickly identify clusters of illnesses, allowing for interventions that might dampen further spread of the virus."
Although enterovirus D28 currently has no vaccine and affects mostly children, especially those with compromised immunity and respiratory systems, new infections are expected to decline as the weather gets colder in the winter months.