Oscar's winter battle with RSV

Oscar’s journey into the world has been a bumpy ride. At eight-weeks-old his mum, Lisa, noticed he was having trouble breathing and rushed him to their local hospital.

Oscar was immediately put on oxygen and underwent several tests. After stabilising his breathing, Oscar was able to return back home but rather than continuing on his road to recovery, Oscar began getting worse. On returning to hospital, tests confirmed he had contracted both Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) and bronchiolitis.

RSV can cause inflammation and mucous to build up in a child’s airways, making it harder for them to breathe. In young children, RSV can also cause bronchiolitis (inflammation and narrowing of the small breathing tubes in the lungs) and pneumonia (an infection of the lung).

Across SCHN, a record number of children, like Oscar, have been admitted to hospital with winter illnesses including RSV, bronchiolitis and flu. This spike has likely been impacted by COVID lockdowns, whichhave prevented common viruses from spreading.

“Over the last two years we have been locked up and locked away so our immune systems haven’t been exposed to these viruses like they normally would have,” Dr Philip Britton, Infectious Diseases Paediatrician at Sydney Children's Hospitals Network said.  

“It has caused an immunity debt and unfortunately, now we are all out and about again, we are starting to have to repay that debt.”

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When Oscar continued to deteriorate, he was quickly transferred by the Newborn and paediatric Emergency Transport Service (NETS) from his local hospital to Sydney Children’s Hospital, Randwick, where he spent six days in ICU receiving specialist care.

Oscar had suffered a partially collapsed lung from coughing and required antibiotics before his condition started improving.

Oscar’s mum, Lisa, said seeing her eight-week-old baby hooked up to a breathing machine was a very difficult and heartbreaking time.

“I don't think I've fully processed what happened. There was nothing I could do and I felt so helpless and so sorry for him,” Lisa said.

Dr Britton says now is not the time to be complacent about winter illnesses and encourages everyone to take their symptoms seriously.

“People accept respiratory illness in winter as normal, but they should instead do whatever they can to stop these diseases spreading,” Dr Britton said

"It’s important to not ignore mild symptoms, including in adults. A mild cold for you might be pneumonia for somebody else, might be intensive care for a young child.”

Professor Kristine McCartney, Director of the National Centre for Immunisation, Research and Surveillance (NCIRS) and a Paediatric Infectious Disease Specialist at SCHN, said any help we can get from the community to reduce the amount and severity of infection is crucial.

“Staying at home when you are sick or keeping sick children at home is particularly important for limiting the spread of RSV, as is regular handwashing, particularly because there is no vaccine against that virus yet,” Professor McCartney said.

While Oscar is still slowly recovering, Lisa is thankful for the care he received and wants other parents to be aware of how dangerous these viruses can be.

“The nurses and doctors from NETS and in ICU were so thoughtful, not only to Oscar but also to us as well. They were really supportive, friendly and calm which helped to keep us calm during a really difficult time,” Lisa said.

“If parents are in a position to get their flu vaccination, I say to absolutely get it done and please stay home if you or your children are sick. I wouldn’t want to see anyone else go through what we went through.”

Early RSV and bronchiolitis symptoms in children may include a runny nose, cough and a fever and can last for up to 10 days. Babies under six months of age may also experience more severe symptoms including, wheezing, shortness of breath, irritability and poor feeding.  

Read our RSV fact sheet for more details, including when to see a doctor or visit the emergency department.