Samples from Colorado children have tested positive for Enterovirus D68, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Children's Hospital Colorado confirmed. Colorado was one of ten states that asked the CDC for help investigating the outbreak.
The illness is related to rhinovirus, which is a cause of the common cold. Patients often complain of a rapid onset of cold-like symptoms and then suddenly are unable to breathe.
The virus can cause mild cold-like symptoms but this summer's cases are unusually severe, said Mark Pallansch, director of the viral diseases division at the CDC. While Enterovirus is common in general, with 10-15 million occurrences each year, the CDC says this strain is much less common and is rarely reported in the United States.
Children with asthma and other health problems are especially at risk, but reported cases include children without asthma who have developed asthma-like breathing problems, Pallansch said. He said no deaths have been reported in the outbreak.
Last week, Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children and Children's Hospital Colorado both announced they were experiencing a surge in patients fighting the virus.
"My head started hurting and after that my lungs started sort of closing up. It felt different," said 13-year-old Will Cornejo, of Lone Tree.
"I was wheezing and I didn't feel good at all," said 9-year-old Jayden Broadway.
Dr. Christine Nyquist, Children's Hospital medical director of infection prevention, said Monday that three-quarters of the 25 samples sent to the CDC did test positive for Enterovirus D68.
"We just got a call from the CDC that they've identified that most of the isolates that we've sent them for testing are the Enterovirus 68 that is circulating throughout the nation, causing illness in young children, giving them increased wheezing and asthma problems," Nyquist said.
Cases were also confirmed in samples from Illinois and Kansas City, according to the CDC.
In Kansas City, nearly 500 children have been treated at one hospital alone -- Children's Mercy in Kansas City -- and some required intensive care, according to authorities.
"It actually is unprecedented in the sense that this is very early for us to have so many respiratory illnesses," Nyquist said. "It happens to be, this virus that causes wheezing in kids in particular and it happens every couple of years or so and we're getting the whole middle of the country hit with this virus."
Besides Colorado, other states who may be experiencing the virus are: North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Kentucky.
The CDC says frequent hand washing with soap and water is a key to prevent infection, which is spread through fluids. Dr. Nyquist said parents of children with asthma or other breathing problems should be especially cautious.
"If you have any predisposition for wheezing, that really sets you up -- with this specific viral infection -- to have a tougher time," she said.
About one third of the children being admitted through Children's Hospital Colorado's emergency department are suffering from a respiratory symptoms. Nyquist said patients ranged in ages from infants to 21-year-old adults.
The CDC said it is difficult to know how long the outbreak will last.
One Colorado woman wonders if her newborn could have been among the first cases in Colorado. Jessica McDonald said her son, Watson, developed cold symptoms in July when he was two-weeks old and then started to have trouble breathing.
"His lips would turn blue and then his eyelids would turn blue, and he'd not be breathing for 20 to 30 seconds," McDonald said.
She said she took her son to Children's Hospital Colorado where he was tested for whooping cough and respiratory syncytial, but doctors where not able to determine what was wrong.
The child was put on oxygen and eventually made a full recovery.
"They really didn't have any answers, and as I read more about the new virus popping up, it sounded exactly like what Watson was doing," McDonald said.
Child care centers have been calling Tri-County Health Department for information about preventing the spread of enterovirus, said Gary Sky, spokesman for the agency, which serves Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties.
"Basically, we're telling people to treat it like influenza: Cover your cough, wash your hands often and stay at home if you're sick to avoid spreading it to anyone else," Sky said.
Both Denver Public Schools and Jefferson County Public Schools said they've had no reports of a spike in children missing school because of respiratory illness.
JeffCo Schools spokeswoman Lynn Setzer said if district nurses spot a school with an increase of 8 percent or more in absences, they'll investigate what's causing kids to miss school. But, so far, they haven't seen that kind of jump.
However, the county health department has warned the school district about the enterovirus outbreak and school nurses "are keeping an eye on it," Setzer said.
Denver Public Schools spokesman Doug Schepman said while DPS hasn't notice a jump in illness absences, the nursing department has stepped up their prevention outreach, encouraging students to wash hands and take other steps to avoid spreading germs.