Health professionals have issued a warning about a virus that is rapidly spreading and causing symptoms similar to those of COVID-19 and influenza. The virus, known as human metapneumovirus (HMPV), leads to lower lung infections, a persistent cough, runny nose, sore throat, and fever. While scientists have limited information about this virus, it has already resulted in numerous hospitalizations, especially among young children and seniors who are most vulnerable to infections.
According to the respiratory virus surveillance systems of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there was a significant increase in HMPV cases in March. Hospital intensive care units were inundated with patients, particularly children and older individuals, who were severely affected by these infections. In mid-March, nearly 11% of individuals tested positive for HMPV, marking a 36% increase compared to the pre-pandemic seasonal peak of 7% test positivity.
Dr. John Williams, a pediatrician at the University of Pittsburgh specializing in researching vaccines and treatments for HMPV, emphasized the significance of this virus, calling it “the most important virus you’ve ever heard of.” He explained that HMPV, along with influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), is one of the viruses most likely to hospitalize and potentially cause fatalities.
Due to the lack of widespread testing, it is challenging to determine the exact number of deaths and infections caused by this virus. However, the number of positive cases is on the rise, particularly among children under the age of five. Currently, there are no specific drugs or vaccines available to treat HMPV.
The symptoms of HMPV include cough, runny nose, sore throat, and fever. In severe cases, patients may experience difficulty breathing, bronchitis, or pneumonia. Infants and older individuals are particularly susceptible to the virus due to their weakened immune systems.
HMPV can be transmitted through close contacts, such as coughing, shaking hands, sneezing, or touching infected objects or surfaces. A study revealed that HMPV is the second most common cause of respiratory infections in children, following RSV, which typically manifests as mild, cold-like symptoms but can have severe consequences for infants and older adults.
Researchers first discovered HMPV in 2001 from respiratory infection samples obtained from children in the Netherlands. They found that the virus is closely related to avian metapneumovirus, which infects birds. The virus subsequently evolved and crossed over to humans.
Moderna, a prominent COVID-19 vaccine manufacturer, recently completed an early study on an mRNA vaccine targeting HMPV and parainfluenza, according to clinicaltrials.gov.
In light of the increasing prevalence of HMPV during the winter and spring months, the CDC has recommended that doctors consider testing for this virus.
A study published in Lancet Global Health in 2020 estimated that in 2018 alone, there were over 14 million HMPV infections among children under the age of five, resulting in more than 600,000 hospitalizations and over 16,000 deaths. These figures highlight the significant impact of HMPV on public health.