© New Zealand Broadcasting School 2021

RSV pushes Christchurch hospitals to their limit

Claudia Toxopeus
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Infants are most vulnerable to the virus  Wikicommons

Full wards, long wait times, and serious overflow; the results of a spike in a potentially deadly virus called RSV.

It has pushed hospitals around the country to their limits and causing sleepless nights for new parents.

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is a common winter-spring virus among infants. However, health officials say last year’s Covid-19 lockdown is resulting in a higher number of infected children.

A Ministry of Health spokesperson said children under two have lower immunity as they were not exposed to last year’s winter chills.

Christchurch Hospital is among those affected, as they experience record numbers of sick children.

Canterbury District Health Board Chief Medical Officer Dr Helen Skinner said there had been 240 cases of RSV and respiratory infections in the first eight days of July, compared to just 67 in the same period last year.

“We need to do whatever we can to prevent the spread of illness in our facilities.”

Skinner said the outbreak was filling up hospital beds and affecting wait times for patients who needed assessments for elective surgeries.

Both Christchurch Hospital and Burwood Hospital have asked visitors to stay away.

Those who do visit for “essential purposes”, will have to wear a face mask and there is a limit of one visitor at a time. 

“Exemptions will be made on compassionate grounds and should be discussed with the nurse in charge of the area you want to visit”, Skinner said. 

Christchurch mum Alice saw the first-hand impacts of the virus when her 14-month-old daughter Ella fell ill.

The young child spent two nights in Christchurch Hospital, after struggling to eat or drink.

Alice described the experience as “scary” and “heart-breaking”.

“I felt so helpless. It’s a real wake-up call for parents. It’s not just a common cold.”

Canterbury and West Coast DHB’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr Ramon Pink said infants are most at risk to RSV. 

His message was clear.

“Canterbury and West Coast DHBs request that only well-parents and caregivers visit their baby/pēpi in hospital and ask people not to visit anyone if they are unwell. Fewer people in means less risk to the baby/patient.”

The outbreak comes amidst concerns over understaffing in Emergency Departments.

Dr John Bonning, an ED physician and president of the Australasian College for Emergency Medicine, said ED’s were already struggling to cope with demand, but RSV has placed a further strain on health professionals.

“Patients wait more than six hours for an inpatient bed.”

Alice saw a similar tale.

She said nurses seemed to be “a little rushed off their feet”.

The Ministry of Health’s is advising parents to monitor their children’s wellbeing, keep them away from other children if they display symptoms, and continue good hand hygiene.

More information about RSV can be found on the Ministry of Health’s website