New Zealand Hospitals Under Strain From Spike in Non-COVID Respiratory Diseases

By Rebecca Zhu
Rebecca Zhu
Rebecca Zhu
July 9, 2021 Updated: July 9, 2021

New Zealand hospitals are experiencing high case numbers of children infected with non-COVID-19 related respiratory illnesses as a result of lockdowns and social distancing rules.

An outbreak of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) in Auckland’s Starship Children’s Hospital is causing the postponement of planned surgeries to ensure there are enough hands to care for all the sick children. The hospital is also urging parents not to bring children to visit other kids.

Sick beds have also been set up in a playroom in Middlemore Hospital because it ran out of space in regular wards.

New Zealand Royal College of GPs medical director Dr. Bryan Betty said his own medical practice saw a spike in children with respiratory illnesses.

“We had none of these illnesses in the country last year because of lockdown—children’s immunity has dropped a little bit, and the illness they’re actually getting is slightly more severe than what we would normally see,” Betty told the NZ Herald.

“This year it’s re-emerged and it’s caused quite a bit of pressure on both general practice and hospitals.”

People of all ages can contract RSV, often manifesting as a common cold in adults. However, it is the leading cause of bronchiolitis and pneumonia in children aged under one and therefore can be deadly.

“There’s certainly been a lot of admissions and presentations to emergency departments, urgent aftercare facilities, and being admitted onto wards in hospitals,” Betty said. “Potentially some children can end up in ICU.”

NZ paediatrician Philip Moore told Stuff.co.nz that he had not seen this level of sick children requiring hospital care in his 28 years in Hawke’s Bay Hospital.

Most NZ children will typically be infected by RSV before they turn two. However, a study has found that the 2020 lockdowns led to a reduction of 99.9 percent in influenza virus and 98 percent in RSV compared to 2015-19.

A paper by a group of French scientists calls it an “immunity debt” caused by “the lack of immune stimulation due to the reduced circulation of microbial agents.”

NZ’s Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) revealed that almost 1,000 cases of RSV have been reported in the five weeks up to July 7. Meanwhile, the normal annual average number of cases across the 21 weeks of winter is 1,743.

“The exponential increase is very sharp. The absence of RSV last winter meant there is a young cohort of children from last year, plus a new cohort this year, who have not been exposed to the seasonal virus,” ESR virologist Sue Huang said. “So overall, our population has more people who are more susceptible to RSV infection.”

Director-General of Health Ashley Bloomfield said the government was concerned about the sharp surge in RSV cases but the hospitals had “very good” prevention measures in place to contain the viruses.

From the beginning of the year, a spike in RSV cases was also seen in Far North Queensland, Australia.

Rebecca Zhu
Rebecca Zhu