Breaking Down Science, Step by Step

Should you panic about Enterovirus D68 ?

If you have pearls you should already be clutching them. There is a brand new virus out there, which automatically means you should be afraid. Pay very close attention to Cable News. We wouldn't want you to miss any adverts.. sorry... I mean information about the outbreak. Why are you reading this article, when you need to be raiding the shops before all the good stuff gets nabbed. Go on, I'll be here when you get back.

Are they gone?

Good, now we can actually have a reasoned conversation. I'd like to talk about Enterovirus D68 without having to deal with the people who hyperventilate over diseases that haven't killed anyone. We're too smart to get panicked over the emergence of any new disease. I doff my cap at you for being so above it all. God, those people are awful, right? Why not go to your nearest store so you can point and guffaw at those air-breathing sods. Go on, treat yourself. Enjoy the casual freakshow of normal human life. I'll be here when you get back.


Alright, I think we're alone now.

Let's not get caught up in the media frenzy, and the backlash against said media frenzy, so we can talk about the virus itself.

Enteroviruses are a family of viruses that tend to live in primates like us. Most of them live in the gut, and barely cause any noticeable diseases.

But there are a few very notable black sheep in this family. There are so many species of enteroviruses because they evolve very rapidly. So while they may be okay with living in the gut, they can evolve to inhabit other parts of the human body.


Which is why at some point in the evolutionary past, some of these viruses evolved to infect the respiratory tract, leading to the evolution of the Rhinoviruses, which cause the common cold.

Enteroviruses also count Polio amongst their progeny. At some point, Polio developed strategies to spread out beyond the gut, and infect other cells, with disastrous consequences for the host.


Now we have Enterovirus D68, which was first discovered in 1962, and primarily affects children, teenagers, and very rarely affects adults. It attacks the respiratory system.

Most emerging pathogens you hear about come from animals. Ebola comes from Bats, Ebola comes from Camels, Avian Flu comes from Waterfowl.


But Enteroviruses are different. We catch them from ourselves. We only notice them when a strain mutates and spreads to different parts of the body. Enterovirus D68 provides an example of this, and it appears to be following the evolutionary route set by the rhinoviruses. Watching how it spreads and evolves could tell us about how the common cold first developed.

Should you be afraid of it?


I know what you might have heard about fear being a superpower, causing you to be faster and stronger. Faster and stronger don't help so much when your fighting a disease. Fear makes your brain switch off, and basically turns you into the Hulk. Hulk doesn't deal well with diseases.

I mentioned earlier that this disease hasn't actually killed anyone, but that's not for lack of trying. Whilst most of the cases were mild, the reason why this panic even started was because some of them were a bit beyond mild. There were kids who were hospitalized because they had difficulty breathing. The kids who are most vulnerable are those with pre-existing problems, like asthma. Fortunately, this disease sprung up in a region with reasonably good healthcare, so there haven't been any deaths, merely a few bad scares.


Currently, the CDC is advocating the kind of stuff you should be doing anyway. Allow me to give you their guidelines.

1. Wash Hands often with soap and water for 20 seconds, even after changing diapers. Because we need to be told not to lick it off like it's nutella.


2. Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands. Well there goes my costume for Halloween. I was going as the Shit Panda.

3.Avoid kissing, hugging, and sharing cups or eating utensils with people who are sick. But That's my Fetish !


4. Disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as toys and doorknobs, especially if someone is sick. You monster, haven't you read the Velveteen rabbit !

It's flu season, so you should really be doing these things anyway. I know, I know, now that there's a trendy new pathogen, everybody wants it. Tough titties, all you'll probably get is boring old flu, with its boring but proven risk of death.


This Enterovirus D68 outbreak will probably cause a lot of headaches for Hospitals that might need to care for more people during this outbreak, putting more pressure on the medical system. It's interesting, because a rare virus has suddenly become more common, which provides scientists with an important opportunity to study how infections evolve and spread. It also forces hospitals to test their pandemic preparedness, allowing them to test all of their strategies so they can show how prepared they are in the event that a really bad flu epidemic was to strike.

The time to start panicking about Enterovirus D68 is in the rare event that it affects you directly. Feel free to abide by the CDC guidelines too. Those will help you handle other diseases, like the common cold, and Flu, which are especially important now we're entering winter.



Global trends in emerging infectious diseases by Jones et al, Science

Frequency and Dynamics of Recombination within Different Species of Human Enteroviruses by Peter Simmonds and Jon Welch, in the Journal of Virology


Catching the cold, written by Fred Adler in The Scientist

CDC guidance on Enterovirus D68

Image credit

Panic Button by John

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