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CDC Releases Faster Diagnostic Test Months After Hundreds of Children Come Down With Enterovirus

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Could be 90 or more new cases a day.

NEW YORK (TheBlaze/AP) — The same day that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that it was retrospectively putting together a team of its own employees to head to hospitals around the country with confirmed Ebola cases, it is addressed a second disease that is actually hitting the country in greater numbers.

For more than two months, enterovirus 68 has sickened nearly 700 children and is being investigated for at least six deaths, according to the federal health department's most recent numbers. These numbers are expected to spike with the new test the CDC has released because it will help speed through a backlog of possible cases.

Melissa Lewis, of Denver, helps her son, Jayden Broadway, 9, as he coughs in his bed at the Children's Hospital Colorado in Aurora, Colo. He was treated for the enterovirus 68 and released, but his asthma made the illness more difficult to fight. (AP/The Denver Post, Cyrus McCrimmon)

The CDC believes this test will help the agency process four or five times more specimens per day that it has been. Instead of national case counts growing by around 30 a day, they're expected to jump to 90 or more.

"When rare or uncommon viruses suddenly begin causing severe illness, CDC works quickly to develop diagnostic tests to enhance our response and investigations. This new lab test will reduce what would normally take several weeks to get results to a few days," Dr. Anne Schuchat, assistant surgeon general and director of CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a statement.

For at least a week or two, the anticipated flood of new numbers will reflect what was seen in the backlog of about 1,000 specimens from September. The numbers will not show what's been happening more recently, noted Mark Pallansch, director of the CDC's division of viral diseases.

States shaded a darker color green are states with confirmed enterovirus cases. (Image source: CDC) States shaded a darker color green are states with confirmed enterovirus cases. (Image source: CDC)

Enterovirus 68 is one of a pack of viruses that spread around the country every year around the start of school, generally causing cold-like illnesses. Some schools, like an elementary school in Southampton, New York, have temporarily closed students have come down with the virus.

Enteroviruses tend to wane after September, and some experts think that's started to happen.

One of the places hardest hit by the enterovirus 68 wave was Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. The specialized pediatric hospital was flooded with cases of wheezing, very sick children in August, hitting a peak of nearly 300 in the last week of the month.

But that kind of patient traffic has steadily declined since mid-September, said Dr. Jason Newland, a pediatric infectious diseases physician there.

"Now it's settled down" to near-normal levels, Newland said. Given the seasonality of the virus, "it makes sense it would kind of be going away," he added.

A blue and gold ribbon wrap around a tree in front of Yardville Elementary School in Hamilton Township, N.J., Saturday, Oct. 4, 2014. The ribbon and sign honored the memory of a preschooler who died on Sept. 25 of enterovirus 68.(AP /The Trentonian, Scott Ketterer)

The germ was first identified in the U.S. in 1962, and small numbers of cases have been regularly reported since 1987. Because it's not routinely tested for, it may have spread widely in previous years without being identified in people who just seemed to have a cold, health officials have said.

But some viruses seem to surge in multi-year cycles, and it's possible that enterovirus surged this year for the first time in quite a while. If that's true, it may have had an unusually harsh impact because there were a large number of children who had never been infected with it before and never acquired immunity, Newland said.

Whatever the reason, the virus gained national attention in August when hospitals in Kansas City and Chicago saw severe breathing illnesses in kids in numbers they never see at that time of year.

Health officials began finding enterovirus 68. The CDC, in Atlanta, has been receiving specimens from severely ill children all over the country and doing about 80 percent of the testing for the virus. The test has been used for disease surveillance, but not treatment. Doctors give over-the-counter medicines for milder cases, and provide oxygen or other supportive care for more severe ones.

The CDC has been diagnosing enterovirus 68 in roughly half of the specimens sent in, Pallansch said. Others have been diagnosed with an assortment of other respiratory germs.

Terrence Mastrino, left, and his wife Marianne invite their son Dominick, 3, to get close and meet his baby sister Vera for the first time in the lobby of Elmhurst Memorial Hospital on Friday Sept. 26, 2014, in Elmhurst, Ill. The hospital is banning siblings from coming up to the maternity ward to see newborns as a consequence of Enterovirus. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images)

As of Friday, lab tests by the CDC have confirmed illness caused by the germ in 691 people in 46 states and the District of Columbia. The CDC is expected to post new numbers Tuesday and Wednesday.

Aside from the CDC, labs in California, Indiana, Minnesota and New York also have been doing enterovirus testing and contributing to the national count. It hasn't been determined if or when the states will begin using the new test, which was developed by a CDC team led by Allan Nix.

Meanwhile, the virus also is being eyed as possible factor in muscle weakness and paralysis in at least 27 children and adults in a dozen states. That includes at least 10 in the Denver area, and a cluster of three seen at Children's Mercy, Newland said.

Watch this report about the new enterovirus 68 test:

Front page image via Shutterstock.

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