Egyptian schools overwhelmed as flu-like virus overtakes Covid-19 infection rate

Respiratory syncytial virus is now the primary cause of illness among children

Pupils wear face masks at a government school in Cairo. EPA
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Egypt’s Education Ministry has launched preventive measures at the nation’s schools to curb the spread of respiratory syncytial virus, which has overtaken Covid-19 as the major cause of flu-like infections among children.

The ministry said it conducted large-scale tests on a number of students who displayed flu-like symptoms over the past two weeks and found that 73 per cent of the tested group had been infected with RSV, while the remainder had other respiratory infections, including Covid-19.

The ministry said this was unusual when compared to last year, when most respiratory infections, which are prevalent during the autumn and winter months, were caused by coronavirus.

Parents have been sharing their concerns on social media over the past week, but the ministry’s spokesman Hossam Abdel Ghaffar said on Wednesday that there was no need to worry as 98 per cent of those infected displayed manageable symptoms such as a runny nose, fevers and coughing.

He said most cases could be treated with medications available over the counter and only in rare cases did a patient require hospitalisation.

“What a lot of people don’t know is that every flu season is unique and each year we will notice a rise in one kind of infection over another,” he said.

“This year, through our testing, we found that mostly children between birth and two years old are being infected with RSV, but we’ve also recorded infections among children aged up to 10 years old.”

Parents had called for more action to address the growing number of children who have been ill with RSV.

The National spoke to Azza Refaey, who runs a Facebook group for lower-income mothers in the district of Imbaba. She said that the situation was much worse than is being portrayed on the news.

“What is really making people panic is that the infections don’t seem to go away,” said Ms Refaey.

“My son has been sick for over two weeks now. He gets better for a day and then the next day he is right back to coughing his lungs out and vomiting.”

She said that half of her son’s class, which has over 50 students, had been at home for the past week and many had missed midterm exams.

The ministry earlier this week directed schools across the nation to reschedule exams for students who missed them due to illness and told parents to keep their children at home if they were severely ill.

It said schools should conduct routine disinfection of their premises, isolate any child who showed flu-like symptoms, enforce mask-wearing among all students and keep the Ministry of Health up to date with any developments related to RSV.

The virus is spread through airborne means, as well as through contaminated surfaces and through skin contact among children. Mr Abdel Ghaffar said that adult infections had also been reported, but adults were at a lower risk of developing complications.

There are no vaccinations for the illness or any medications that directly tackle RSV, said Mr Abdel Ghaffar. He said the most vulnerable were children who were malnourished and had weak immunity.

Elderly people with chronic illnesses, especially respiratory ones, are also at risk of developing complications, he said.

He advised parents to pay particular attention to their children’s nutrition over the winter months to ensure their immune system was functioning properly and to take their children to the hospital if they developed prolonged difficulties with breathing or if they developed a fever for more than three days.

Globally, RSV affects an estimated 64 million people and causes 160,000 deaths each year. A study published in 2022 by the US Library of Medicine said that as of 2020, lower respiratory infections such as RSV accounted for 10 per cent of deaths of children younger than five in Egypt.

Updated: November 17, 2022, 12:11 PM