10/12/2017 13:55 EDT | Updated 10/12/2017 13:56 EDT

Brace Yourselves For The Rise Of This Respiratory Virus

Last year saw a significant spike in infections compared to previous years.

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With winter approaching, public health officials are gearing up for another cold and flu season. Hygiene recommendations will be everywhere, as will the push to get this year's influenza vaccine. In turn, many Canadians will attempt to avoid the viruses that cause those sniffles, coughs, and sneezes.

The number of viruses known to cause these illnesses is fairly large, with names such as rhinovirus, coronavirus, parainfluenzavirus, and adenovirus taking the lion's share of blame for non-flu infections.

But another virus has lurked continuously in the background with very little attention given to it. It's known as Respiratory Syncytial Virus, or as it is better known, RSV.

When RSV enters the respiratory tract, it heads straight into the nose and throat, where it can take hold and multiply. We suffer the sniffles and a cough as a result. But in some people, the virus can find its way into the lungs. When this happens, several critical cells in the lung are attacked, leading to a rather rapid and strong immune response.

The viral invasion starts a cellular war which usually ends up in a condition similar to pneumonia. The body needs the time to figure out how best to fight the virus and eventually win the battle. In the meantime, we can suffer for weeks. If the defense forces are compromised, the situation can become even worse, requiring hospitalization.

Scott Camazine/Ed Dubovi via Getty Images
Color-enhanced transmission electron micrograph (TEM) of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

Despite the potential toll on the body, RSV has not been considered a significant threat for the majority of the population. The reason is quite simple. For the longest time, this virus was thought to attack only the very young, the very old, and those with weakened immune systems. Those who happen to fall in between these extremes generally have been considered to be safe from infection.

Yet over the last five years, something has changed and RSV has begun to show up more regularly in individuals between the ages of 25 and 65. Last year saw a significant rise in infections compared to previous years, suggesting something may be happening to the virus. What that might be has been a mystery.

Now a recent study from an international team of researchers may offer some answers. The group echoes the statistics by showing the virus is rising in the Canadian population and provides some insight into why this may be happening. The information suggests we may need to take RSV more seriously than we had thought.

RSV may rise from the shadows and take over as a major player during the cold and flu season in Canada.

The team looked at the genetic makeup of viruses in northern Alberta, including Edmonton. The hope was to identify evolutionary changes in the virus at the genetic level, a common practice for public health surveillance. They hoped the information could help determine the strength of the virus and possible hidden weapons of war — termed virulence factors — giving them an advantage over our immune defenses.

When the results came back, the team found the virus had evolved into its own group, called a clade, in the Alberta region. Some of the strains inside these clades had developed in the area while others had been introduced into the community from other parts of the world and then evolved locally.

With this information in hand, the team tried to identify whether age played a role in the overall battle between virus and immunity allowing for these clades to appear. They initially looked at infants, children between one and five years of age and those over 65. But something strange popped up. There was a rise in the number of people between the ages of 25 and 65 who had suffered from the virus.

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As to why this change happened, there may be an answer thanks to an American team of researchers.

Earlier this year, they revealed adults between 18 and 45 tend to respond differently than infants upon infection with the virus. Adults experience a higher diversity of viruses, which can in turn develop new strains most immune systems cannot recognize. As this happens, the viruses best fit for causing infection in this age group can spread, leading to an increased risk in the general population. The only question is, when did this virus with the capability of infecting all adults appear? That has yet to be answered concretely.

Regardless of how the virus may have come, it is here and as a result, RSV may rise from the shadows and take over as a major player during the cold and flu season in Canada. Thankfully, this virus spreads in a similar manner as the flu so you can keep yourself safe. Handwashing and the use of hand sanitizers can help as well as personal distancing to keep the virus away from your respiratory tract. Also, the use of barriers such a scarf can trap any of those infectious droplets.

There is one main divergence from the flu, however. There is no vaccine for RSV. However, research in this area continues and eventually may offer us a new direction to prevent infection.

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