A potentially deadly but little-known respiratory virus is picking up momentum in Australia’s most populated state, with more than 1100 infections recorded in one week.
Many who have contracted human metapneumovirus, or HMPV, may not realise they have it, with symptoms similar to a common cold — cough, fever, sore throat and nasal congestion.
However young children, older adults and people with weakened immune systems are at an increased risk of further complications including bronchitis and pneumonia.
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In extreme cases, it can land patients in intensive care.
Former deputy chief medical officer Nick Coatsworth described HMPV as “the virus you’ve never heard of but a virus that all of us have almost certainly had”.
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The number of HMPV cases has surged in NSW, with 1168 residents confirmed to have the respiratory illness in the week ending September 17.
It is a significant jump from the start of the month when 648 infections were reported, according to NSW Health data.
Health authorities around the country are monitoring the situation.
Similar to influenza, HMPV is a seasonal respiratory disease that usually increases in winter and early spring and declines by the end of the year.
HMPV cases are surging in NSW. Credit: Inside Creative House/Getty Images/iStockphoto
It is most likely spread from an infected person to others through secretions from coughing and sneezing, close personal contact and touching your mouth, nose or eyes after coming into contact with objects or surfaces that have the bug on them.
“You can prevent HMPV by covering coughs and sneezes, washing your hands often, cleaning surfaces regularly and staying home if you are unwell,” WA Health told 7NEWS.com.au.
In one extreme case, Diane Davison explained she was left coughing violently after she caught HMPV in April.
“I couldn’t get out more than a couple of words,” the 59-year-old told CNN.
“I would go into violent, violent coughing to the point where I was literally almost throwing up.”
The big three in kids and adults
Davison, who is immunocompromised and developed a serious bout of bronchitis, said “it was the worst (respiratory infection) I’d ever experienced”.
She was sick for a month before finally recovering.
There is no vaccine or antiviral drug to treat HMPV, with doctors caring for seriously ill patients by tending to their symptoms and controlling their pain.
Earlier this year, US paediatrician John Williams called it “the most important virus you’ve never heard of”.
“Those are the three major viruses,” he said, referring to influenza, RSV and HMPV.
“Those are the big three in kids and adults, the most likely to put people in the hospital and cause severe disease, most likely to sweep through nursing homes and make older people really sick and even kill them.”
NSW Health is seeing a resurgence of respiratory viruses, Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said. Credit: AAP
NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant said the health department had witnessed a “resurgence of respiratory viruses”.
“For the first two years of the pandemic we basically (had) very little circulation of respiratory viruses because of all those COVID social distancing measures,” Chant said this week.
“We’ve now seen an uptick in … flu RSV, and HMPV is yet another virus.”
A recent study estimated there were 14.2 million HMPV infections in children under five in 2018, leading to 643,000 hospital admissions and more than 16,100 deaths.