Dr Joanna Kirman leads a team at the Malaghan Institute investigating respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). RSV is a common but nasty lung infection. The aim of the research is to understand why New Zealand has such a high rate of severe RSV. Vitamin D deficiency could be the answer, and if so, adding a vitamin D supplement would provide a simple solution.
DR JOANNA KIRMAN
RSV stands for respiratory syncytial virus, and RSV causes a disease called bronchiolitis, which infects small children and generally causes a very, very nasty inflammatory lung infection. RSV is incredibly common – pretty much every kid will have encountered RSV by the time they are 2 years old.
RSV is a really good example of immunological memory. Immunological memory is really great because the first time you see the infection, it will probably cause a disease, but your immune response can remember that, and the next time you see that infection, you will get a milder form of the disease.
There is no vaccine for RSV, and our aim has been to try and understand why in New Zealand we’ve got such a high rate of severe RSV bronchiolitis, because our hospitalisation rate is about double that of other countries that are similar to New Zealand like Canada or Australia or the United States.
We are doing a collaborative study with another group in Wellington looking at vitamin D levels in children who are hospitalised with RSV. Because RSV like the flu tends to occur during the winter months, we think that, during the winter months, our vitamin D levels are really low because vitamin D needs to have sunlight to be converted to its active form in the body, and we can all – as a population – tend to be quite vitamin D deficient during winter, and that can make us susceptible to many diseases. And we are looking to see whether the children who have the severe RSV bronchiolitis are actually more vitamin D deficient than children who are able to fight off their infection in the community.
If we find that children who have got severe RSV are vitamin D deficient, it is easy to just supplement the diet with vitamin D. It could be that vitamin D gets added in higher amounts to things like infant formula or foods that small children are eating, so it will be quite an easy solution.
CDC Centres for Disease Control & Prevention
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