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Respiratory syncytial virus causes as much illness as flu

Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) causes at least as much illness as flu and possibly more, a study reveals.

The analysis of a decade's worth of data found sharper peaks of illness when RSV was circulating than with flu across patients of all ages, writes Lilian Anekwe.

The researchers warned GPs often underestimated the impact of RSV on the community, and that the virus needed to be the focus of greater public health attention.

Dr Doug Fleming, a former GP and director of the RCGP Birmingham research unit, said: 'As flu is declining in importance as a winter infection, the role of RSV is becoming much clearer.

'The influence of RSV is spread across all respiratory syndrome diagnoses. In mid-winter particularly, RSV is always a major contributor to winter illness, independent of age group and respiratory syndrome diagnosis.'

Dr Fleming added that he thought it would be 'reasonable' for GPs to distinguish between RSV and flu by the presence of wheezing. 'People with febrile illness and wheeze as a symptom are more like to have RSV than flu,' he said.

Dr Fleming's research group compared the burden of illness over 10 years from 1994/5 to 2003/4. It examined rates of acute bronchitis, influenza-like illness, otitis media, the common cold and lower and upper respiratory tract infection during periods of flu and RSV activity.

There were 2,702 excess cases in children aged under one year old, and 994 in children aged one to four, during RSV periods compared with flu periods.

Excess rates for the common cold were also significantly higher during periods of RSV activity, with 3,728 excess cases in children under one year old, and 339 more cases in those aged five to 14.

Dr Alun Cooper, a GP in Crawley, Sussex, and prescribing advisor to Crawley PCT, said: 'You see patients with viral infections but you don't know what's going on around you. It's a problem for general practice in the work that it gives us, but we don't go around making specific diagnoses of RSV.'

The research was published online in the journal Epidemiology and Infection.

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