The past winter was a heavy one for respiratory viruses, dominated by surges of RSV, influenza, and Covid-19. But just as it was winding down, a little-known virus that causes many of the same symptoms – a lower lung infection, hacking cough, runny nose, sore throat, and fever – was just picking up steam.
Cases of human metapneumovirus, or HMPV, spiked this spring , according to US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s respiratory virus surveillance systems. It filled hospital intensive care units with young children and seniors who are the most vulnerable to these infections. At its peak in mid-March, nearly 11% of tested specimens were positive for HMPV, a number that’s about 36% higher than the average, pre-pandemic seasonal peak of 7% test positivity.
Most people who caught it probably didn’t even know they had it, however. Sick people aren’t usually tested for it outside of a hospital or ER. Unlike Covid-19 and the flu, there’s no vaccine for HMPV or antiviral drugs to treat it. Instead, doctors care for seriously ill people by tending to their symptoms.
An underestimated threat
Studies show that HMPV causes as much misery in the US each year as the flu and a closely related virus, RSV. One study of patient samples collected over 25 years found that it was the second most common cause of respiratory infections in kids behind RSV. A study in New York conducted over four winters found that it was as common in hospitalized seniors as RSV and the flu. Like those infections, HMPV can lead to intensive care and fatal cases of pneumonia in older adults.
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