RSV: Health officials warns of ‘severe wave’ amongst young children

RSV: Health officials warns of ‘severe wave’ amongst young children

Parents of young children are being warned to take heed of a “severe wave” of the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) as it spreads across the country.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NCID) has released data indicating that RSV is surging since lockdown restrictions have been relaxed amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

In fact, NCID predicts a significant wave of infections in the next three months.

RSV is the most common cause of bronchiolitis and lower respiratory tract illness among young children. It can also cause pneumonia, which is the main cause of death in children under the age of five.

The virus is highly contagious and infection does not provide long-term immunity, which means that re-infections can occur. Unlike Covid-19, there is no vaccine for RSV.


According to a NCID report, two years of lockdown restrictions have lessened the blow of RSV.

The report read: “Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the RSV season in South Africa usually preceded the influenza season with the usual average onset at the end of February (range early February – mid-March) over the last 10 years.

“However, since the start of COVID-19 pandemic, with non-pharmaceutical interventions to prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission in place, RSV circulation has been disrupted, with fewer cases and out of season outbreaks.

This essentially means that social distancing, increased efforts on sterilization and even the closure of schools meant that fewer children were exposed to RSV in the last two years.

According to NCID’s Professor Cheryl Cohen RSV season kicked off in March, will peak in April, and will continue until May.

She told Daily Maverick: “Non-pharmaceutical measures (like the wearing of masks, washing of hands and physical distancing) have prevented the infection in very young children during the lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, so now we are seeing them get ill when they are older”.

She added: “The hospitals must get ready. Intensive care units will be quite full.”

NCID added in their report: “The results from the models suggested an intensive RSV season in 2022 with a higher and earlier than usual peak number of RSV-related hospitalizations in early April.

“Healthcare providers are encouraged to prepare and allocate adequate resources to respond to the surge in RSV cases”.


Initial signs of RSV include cold-like symptoms, such as:

  • Runny nose or congestion
  • Sore throat and/or coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Fever
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Decrease in appetite and difficulties swallowing
  • Signs of dehydration

Doctors may diagnose RSV by undertaking:

  • Blood and urine tests to look for an infection
  • Chest X-rays to look for any signs of pneumonia
  • Testing mucus scraped out of your child’s nose or mouth

As RSV is a virus, it cannot be treated by antibiotics. Therefore symptoms will be treated – particularly those affecting the respiratory system.

NCID states that prevention of RSV should include isolation of children with flu-like symptoms (sick children should not go to crèches or schools for a few days), and teaching children (and adults looking after infants) to practice sneeze and cough hygiene.

Similarly to Covid-19, strict hygiene practices should continue, like cleaning and disinfecting hard surfaces, washing hands often with soap and water.

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