Respiratory syncytial virus: NSW mums reveal babies fight for life in ICU with RSV, influenza risk


A horrified mother has relived the terrifying moment her tiny baby gasped for life as his lung collapsed and he stopped breathing in the grip of a powerful virus.

New South Wales is seeing the worst of the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) outbreak, with cases increasing ten fold in just three weeks.

The disease – which has similar symptoms to Covid and influenza – can be fatal in very young children, killing 120,000 a year globally, with no vaccine available to protect them.

Now two mothers have told Daily Mail Australia how RSV almost killed their children and detailed the desperate fight to save them.

Lisa Whillock’s baby Oscar was only eight weeks old when he started having difficulty breathing at their home in Terrigal, on the NSW central coast.

Oscar Whillock was just eight weeks old when he started having difficulty breathing at his home in Terrigal in May (pictured, the baby is transported to Randwick Children’s Hospital)

Oscar Whillock was eventually diagnosed with respiratory syncytial virus - a major cause of lung infection in infants and spent six days being cared for in intensive care

Oscar Whillock was eventually diagnosed with respiratory syncytial virus – a major cause of lung infection in infants and spent six days being cared for in intensive care

The worried mum twice rushed Oscar to local Gosford Hospital where medics took swab tests and checked oxygen levels before sending the family home again.

But a few days later, the baby boy showed no signs of improvement, and the family returned to hospital, where test results revealed he had RSV.

Oscar was also diagnosed with bronchiolitis – a lung infection that causes inflammation and mucus to build in the airways, making breathing difficult.

Severe cases can kill babies and toddlers, whose airways have not yet fully formed and who do not have enough immunity against infection.

‘He deteriorated so fast,’ Ms Whillock told Daily Mail Australia. ‘He stopped breathing on the Sunday, he could have died’.

Oscar Whillock was placed on a CPAP breathing machine and cared for by specialist nurses who his mother has described as 'absolutely incredible'

Oscar Whillock was placed on a CPAP breathing machine and cared for by specialist nurses who his mother has described as ‘absolutely incredible’

After six tumultuous days in the ICU, Oscar Whillock was discharged, however his family’s terrifying brush with illness returned when his whole family was then stuck down with the flu

His terrified mum watched as her newborn started respiratory arrest and, at one point, stopped breathing.

His deteriorating condition meant doctors eventually rushed him to the intensive care unit at Sydney Children’s Hospital at Randwick in Sydney’s eastern suburbs.

Oscar was placed on a breathing machine and cared for by specialist nurses.

The eight-week-old suffered a partially collapsed lung from coughing so much and required antibiotics before several chest x-rays showed his condition was improving.

She said seeing her eight-week-old hooked up to a breathing machine was ‘heartbreaking’ and the ‘worst time’ of her life.

‘I don’t think I’ve fully processed it. It was awful,’ she said. ‘I just felt so helpless and so sorry for him. There was nothing I could do.’

After six tumultuous days, Oscar was discharged, but he spent another night in ICU six weeks later when his whole family was struck down with the flu.

Ms Whillock said she regrets not getting vaccinated earlier and suspected her two-year-old son was inadvertently bringing viruses home from daycare.

She said the flu was ‘100 times worse’ than having Covid and said she had experienced a ‘solid week of aches’.

‘I’ve never known a flu season like it,’ the mum-of-two said.

Oscar's mum described seeing her eight-week-old hooked up to a breathing machine as 'heartbreaking' and the 'worst time' of her life

Oscar’s mum described seeing her eight-week-old hooked up to a breathing machine as ‘heartbreaking’ and the ‘worst time’ of her life

Ms Whillock remains paranoid her little boy (pictured) will end up in the ICU again with yet another illness after two visits in just over two months

Ms Whillock remains paranoid her little boy (pictured) will end up in the ICU again with yet another illness after two visits in just over two months

The one-year-old (pictured) was rushed to hospital after her mother noticed she had begun to 'gasp for air' after being particularly 'whingey' the night before

The one-year-old (pictured) was rushed to hospital after her mother noticed she had begun to ‘gasp for air’ after being particularly ‘whingey’ the night before

Doctors decided to transport their tiny patient to the children's hospital at Randwick where she was sedated and placed on a breathing machine

Doctors decided to transport their tiny patient to the children’s hospital at Randwick where she was sedated and placed on a breathing machine

Ms Whillock remains fearful that her little boy will end up in the ICU again and wakes up in the night terrified her baby has stopped breathing.

She says she finds herself constantly putting her hand on his chest to check he’s okay.

Dominique Peters-Kelly, from Sydney’s north shore, also feared she would lose her baby girl when the one-year-old was struck down by the virus last month.

The mother-of-two told Daily Mail Australia she had to take her little girl to hospital three times in just six weeks.

The one-year-old was first taken to Northern Beaches Hospital after her mum noticed she had begun to ‘gasp for air’ after being particularly ‘whingey’ the night before.

Doctors decided to transport their tiny patient to the children’s hospital at Randwick, where she was sedated and placed on a breathing machine.

‘I thought she was going to die. It was on another level,’ Ms Peters-Kelly said.

‘Everything they were doing to support her wasn’t working.’

Ms Peters-Kelly said her husband burst into tears after seeing their baby hooked up to tubes in the hospital.

The little girl spent three days on a breathing machine in intensive care with her diagnosis of the common cold.

Ms Peters-Kelly said her daughter thankfully completely recovered and had follow-up appointments at a high-risk asthma clinic and a respiratory specialist.

However she remains uneasy about sending her baby back to daycare – where she believes she picked up the viruses within just two weeks of attending.

The mum-of-two decided to keep her daughter home while winter illnesses circulated but will eventually send her to daycare in the summer when she hoped she’d be more ‘robust’. 

Healthdirect chief medical officer Dr Nirvana Luckraj said the health service had received a rise in calls regarding respiratory viruses. 

Ms Peters-Kelly said her daughter (pictured) has since completely recovered and had follow-up appointments at a high-risk asthma clinic and a respiratory specialist

Ms Peters-Kelly said her daughter (pictured) has since completely recovered and had follow-up appointments at a high-risk asthma clinic and a respiratory specialist

Healthdirect puts Australians in contact with a registered nurse, who can provide advice on health concerns 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Dr Luckraj said calls regarding respiratory symptoms had increased across all age-groups and was in line with the number of babies presenting to hospital.

She said when a parent called Healthdirect, a nurse would first check for emergency symptoms like whether the child was rasping or having trouble breathing.

Pictured: Dr Nirvana Luckraj, the Chief Medical Officer at Healthdirect Australia

Pictured: Dr Nirvana Luckraj, the Chief Medical Officer at Healthdirect Australia

A nurse also asked whether the child was drinking half their normal fluid intake, if they were wheezing or if they were drowsier than usual – all signs of respiratory problems.

Dr Luckraj said newborns were more vulnerable to viruses and urged parents to seek a medical assessment from a doctor as soon as possible.

A warning was sounded about RSV three weeks ago when there were just 355 cases a week in NSW, but three weeks later, that rocketed up to 3,775 in a week.

Around a fifth of those developed the potentially lethal bronchiolitis, with 40 per cent of them ending up in hospital.

Infectious disease researcher Dr John-Sebastian Eden said the triple whammy of RSV, flu and Covid was packing out the emergency department of Sydney’s Westmead Children’s Hospital.

‘There is a widespread three-way outbreak occurring,’ he told Daily Mail Australia.

International borders opening up has seen flu come back and new strains of RSV.

DOCTOR’S TOP TIPS FOR REDUCING THE SPREAD OF VIRUSES

Don’t allow children to share cups, cutlery or toys

Clean toys thoroughly with soap and water between uses

Teach children good hygiene habits like sneezing or coughing into a tissue

Keep sick kids home from school or daycare until they are symptom-free 

‘With Covid layered up on top, these are three main viruses which will lead to hospitalisation,’ Dr Eden said.

During Covid, RSV continued to spread and split into two separate strains in the east and west of the country in the wake of Western Australia’s prolonged isolation.

Researchers were shocked by the sudden rise of the disease in the first year of lockdowns, fuelled by keeping childcare centres open despite Covid restrictions.

‘It was something we had never seen before,’ Dr Eden said. 

‘Even in lockdown there was a lot of effort to keep childcare open.

‘You only need a small amount of virus to build up a chain of transmission.’

The disease subsided in 2021, but has now bounced back with the current outbreak.

Dr Eden said cases in NSW had likely not yet reached their peak, as he braced for the outbreak to spread nationwide. 

He expected the disease to spread across the southern half of the country at similar levels in the coming weeks.

‘What happens is where you have an outbreak in NSW and we’ve got all those people travelling to other states from there, it then feeds outbreaks in other parts,’ he said. 

HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT RSV 

RSV is normally a winter disease but Covid lockdowns saw an unexpected huge surge in summer cases last year.

Symptoms include a runny nose, cough, reduced feeding and fever. 

Other signs of respiratory problems include the child drinking half the normal fluid intake or if they were drowsier than usual.

Complications include wheezing and difficulty breathing, which can develop into pneumonia. 

RSV - respiratory syncytial virus - is a major cause of lung infections in children and can lead to pneumonia or bronchiolitis, which is particularly dangerous in young infants.

RSV – respiratory syncytial virus – is a major cause of lung infections in children and can lead to pneumonia or bronchiolitis, which is particularly dangerous in young infants.

Like Covid, it can be transferred by sneezing and coughing, but unlike Covid, young children are particularly affected by it. 

‘Most children will recover without needing specialist care in hospital, and children with mild infection can be treated with rest at home,’ paediatrician Dr Daniel Yeoh wrote in The Conversation.

‘It’s the major cause of lung infections in children, commonly causing bronchiolitis. 

‘Severe cases occasionally lead to death, predominantly in very young infants.

Almost all children have had an RSV infection by the age of two, but infants in their first year of life are more likely to experience severe infections requiring hospitalisation, because their airways are smaller. Babies have also not built up immunity to RSV from previous years.

Dr Yeoh added: ‘Treatment for RSV is focused on helping children with their breathing (for example, giving them oxygen) and feeding (for example, administering fluids through a drip).’

There is no vaccine for RSV but several are under development. 

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