As lockdown restrictions ease, emergency departments have seen a surge in the number of babies with a respiratory illness more often seen in winter.
As lockdown restrictions ease, emergency departments have seen a surge in the number of babies with a respiratory illness more often seen in winter.

Spike in baby illnesses post-lockdown

Emergency departments across Victoria are recording a spike in the number of babies with serious respiratory illnesses such as bronchiolitis and croup.

Doctors say there has been an increase in the illnesses, as well as respiratory syncytial virus, as kids have more interaction with other youngsters.

"Some childhood illnesses, including respiratory illnesses, were relatively inactive over the last year but have become more prevalent as restrictions have eased and interactions between children increased," a Department of Health spokesman said.

At Sunshine Hospital, in Melbourne's west, the number of children presenting with bronchiolitis has soared.

The illness, a common chest infection caused by a viral infection of the lungs, is typically a winter disease.

In February 2018, just 21 babies attended Sunshine Hospital with bronchiolitis.

For the same month in 2019, there were 27 admissions and 38 in 2020. This year, that figure has risen to 77.

Sunshine Hospital director of paediatric emergency medicine David Krieser said bronchiolitis was typically prevalent between Easter and Cup Day, and peaked from May to September.

"We would hardly see any babies (with bronchiolitis) during summer," Dr Krieser said.

"Youngest babies have spent most of their first 18 months of life only with their family in various levels of lockdown.

"They've been less likely to attend playgroups, less likely to go to playgrounds and as a result are less likely to have that close personal contact that contributes to the spread of disease."

The "large cohort" of babies, all largely "immune-naive", was developing the virus through settings such as childcare centres and in spaces where children interact closely.

"The concern that we have is we do not know how this will affect our normal seasonal variation," Dr Krieser said.

"We've seen a doubling from February 2020 to February 2021; will we also see an increase of pre-COVID levels when we hit our peak?

"If we were to plateau, and this is where it stays, we will put in place some contingencies to accommodate that.

"But if we are only at the beginning and we're going up from here to new peaks, we will have to think of innovative ways to manage these patients."

The vast majority of babies with bronchiolitis can be treated from home, however more severe cases result in patients being put on a ventilator.

"The younger the baby, the higher the risk," Dr Krieser said.

"The first three months of life is the highest risk."

The startling figures come just days after the Royal Children's Hospital announced its emergency department had been overrun by an "incredibly high volume of patients".

The hospital wouldn't confirm whether that was in relation to a spike in respiratory illnesses.

mitchell.clarke@news.com.au

Originally published as Spike in baby illnesses post-lockdown


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