'Killer Cold' Kills 10, Has Health Officials on AlertDec 20, 2007 | Parker Waichman LLP A so-called “Killer Cold” is just the latest superbug to have public health officials worried. The adenovirus has sickened over 1,000 people in a handful of states, killing 10. The bug causing the serious disease is called "adenovirus 14" and is one of the 51 or so strains of adenovirus that typically cause anything from colds to conjunctivitis and gastroenteritis. While adenovirus isn't a new bug on the block—it was first identified over 50 years ago in 1955—researchers believe it has mutated into a more virulent form of the virus first identified in 2005.
A high school varsity athlete—18-year old Joseph Spencer—was a sturdy guy with a healthy background. The vomiting, chills, fever, "It must be the flu," he thought. But he was mistaken and within hours his fever was up to 104 degrees. Within days, he was in the intensive care unit at Providence Portland Medical Center in Oregon with full-blown pneumonia and his physicians feared he might die. "His lungs had filled up with water, it was hard to get oxygen into him," explains Dr. David Gilbert, an infectious disease expert and Spencer's physician at Providence. "Things got so bad, I thought we were at risk of losing him." Today, Spencer has memory gaps, likely due to oxygen loss.
The diagnosis? Adenovirus—the virus that usually causes nothing more serious than a nasty cold. “Adenovirus is causing severe disease and, in some cases, death in normal, healthy people," says Dr. Dean Erdman, leader of the respiratory diagnostic program at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. At least 1,035 people in Oregon and a handful of other states have been infected by adenovirus so far this year. One of the largest outbreaks was at an Air Force base in Texas and the deadliest outbreak—where seven died--was in Oregon.
“ We were very surprised when we ran into this much more aggressive form of adenovirus, which took otherwise healthy people and put them into our intensive care unit with life-threatening pneumonia,” said Gilbert. It is important for doctors to think of adenovirus, ensuring they recognize early symptoms—shortness of breath, cough, and fever—before they become life threatening. "We are asking physicians is to be alert, not to panic—but be alert," says the CDC's Erdman, who stresses influenza remains a much larger public health concern, killing and causing far more serious illnesses annually than adenovirus.
According to Dr. Sanjay Gupta, adenoviruses live on everything from pens to countertops to inside our noses, spreading through contact with a surface or the air. Most people won't suffer life-threatening illness if exposed to adenovirus 14—it’s still pretty rare—but few have antibodies to it so there's opportunity for a new virus to spread rapidly. "Adenoviruses kill people," says Gilbert, adding that when these infectious viruses do spread, they spread fast.
As far as treatments for adenovirus 14, there aren't any. Doctors focus on symptom management and researchers are looking into the efficacy of antiviral drugs. The CDC stresses that common sense is our best defense: Keep household surfaces clean with a good virus-buster like bleach, avoid and cover-up coughs and sneezes, and wash your hands frequently.