Maine health officials confirmed the state’s first case of enterovirus D68 on Wednesday, the same day that federal health officials said four people who were infected with the highly contagious respiratory virus had died.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it was unsure what role the virus, which has infected 500 people nationwide, played in the deaths. One of the victims was a 10-year-old Rhode Island girl, who died last week as a result of a staph infection that hit her at the same time as the enterovirus, according to state health officials there.

In Maine, a school-aged York County child was hospitalized for four days a few weeks ago, but is now doing well, said Dr. Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control. Pinette said the child needed assistance breathing while in the hospital, which is common for those infected. No additional information is being released about the child to protect patient privacy.

Samples taken from the Maine child were sent to the federal CDC, which came back Tuesday as having tested positive for enterovirus D68.

Pinette said the student is no longer contagious, so no specific school was being notified. However, she said the Maine CDC will send out a reminder to all Maine school districts emphasizing proper hygiene and reminding students and staff to wash hands, cough into arms bent at the elbow and keep surfaces clean.

She was not aware of any notifications sent to school districts before Wednesday, while the child was still in the hospital. “If your child is sick, parents should stay home and watch them if at all possible, as they could get very sick, very quickly,” Pinette said.

The symptoms are similar to a common cold, but can quickly become worse. Mild symptoms include fever, runny nose, sneezing, coughing, and body and muscle aches. More severe symptoms include wheezing and difficulty breathing.

Pinette said that bleach or soap and water should be used to clean surfaces, not anti-bacterial sprays.

“As is the case with the common cold, the best protection is good hygiene,” she said in a written statement.

The airborne enterovirus D68 virus has no cure or vaccine, factors that have caused concern for health experts.

The virus has most often affected elementary-aged children who are otherwise healthy. Children with asthma appear to be more adversely affected, according to the federal CDC. Adults seem to be less likely to fall ill because they have already developed immunity to the strain.

The federal CDC also is investigating whether the virus played a role in causing temporary paralysis in a small number of patients in California, Colorado, Massachusetts and Michigan. The Denver Post reported cases of “paralysis-like” symptoms in 10 children at Children’s Hospital in Colorado amid an enterovirus outbreak. Although the children can move to some degree, they have experienced muscle weakness and difficulty swallowing and walking.

Dr. Melissa Maginnis, a microbiology professor at the University of Maine, said people should be concerned about enterovirus D68 because it has quickly spread across the U.S. this year, and was not contained to a region. Maine was one of the few remaining states that, before Wednesday, had not yet reported a confirmed case. The federal CDC had confirmed 500 cases in 42 states as of Wednesday.

Maginnis said this fall and winter will be a crucial time, since that’s when people are more likely to stay indoors, making it easier for viruses to propagate.

“It’s really hard to predict what’s going to happen. This is a very serious virus, and there is potential for it to continue to spread,” Maginnis said. “We’re still in the early stages of understanding what’s going on.”

She said the virus has the potential to become more widespread than West Nile virus, which circulates primarily through mosquitoes and typically affects infants or the elderly.

Maginnis noted that influenza can be contained with a vaccine, but there’s no vaccine yet for enterovirus D68. The D68 strain was first discovered in California in the early 1960s, but for unknown reasons has made a comeback this year, according to the federal CDC.

Dr. Monroe Duboise, a microbiology professor at the University of Southern Maine, said the D68 strain is more potent than most enterovirus strains, which primarily cause intestinal symptoms. D68, however, has caused mainly respiratory problems.

“This does seem like a rather severe virus,” Duboise said.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

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Twitter: @joelawlorph

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