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What to know about adenovirus, the common bug that killed children at N.J. facility

Virus kills 7 kids at NJ healthcare facility
Adenovirus kills seven children at N.J. long-term care facility 02:16

Update: Health officials reported on Nov. 16 that the number of deaths has risen to 11.

When health officials reported that at least seven children died in a viral outbreak at a long-term care facility in New Jersey, the news focused attention on adenovirus, the bug believed to be responsible. According to the state's Department of Health, the deaths occurred among children with severe disabilities and medical problems at the Wanaque Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation, in Haskell, New Jersey. Eleven more children there have been sickened by the virus.

What is adenovirus?

Adenoviruses are a family of viruses that account for about 5 to 10 percent of fevers in young children. A person can become infected with adenovirus at any age and it causes a range of illnesses, from mild to severe.

Most people who get sick from adenovirus recover after a few days, but people with weakened immune systems, or existing respiratory or cardiac disease, are at higher risk of developing severe complications from an infection. The children at the Wanaque Center are severely disabled, which explains how the outbreak became deadly.

"Kids at facilities like this tend to be quite ill," said CBS News chief medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook. "So they may have a breathing tube, they may be in a coma — some kind of underlying medical condition that severely weakens their immune system, and that makes them an easy target for this virus."

According to the New Jersey Department of Health, the particular strain of adenovirus (#7) involved in the outbreak has been associated with disease in communal living arrangements and can be more severe.

What are the symptoms?

According to the CDC, adenovirus can lead to a variety of symptoms, including:

  • Common cold
  • Sore throat
  • Bronchitis
  • Pneumonia
  • Diarrhea
  • Pink eye
  • Fever
  • Bladder inflammation or infection
  • Inflammation of stomach and intestines
  • Neurologic disease

How does adenovirus spread?

Adenovirus is spread from one infected person to another through close personal contact, such as touching or shaking hands; coughing or sneezing; or touching a contaminated object or surface, then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes before washing your hands. Infection can also be spread through contact with an infected person's stool, including during diaper changing.

Viruses can spread rapidly in communal living environments, and health inspectors cited "minor hand washing deficiencies" at the Wanaque Center, CBS Philly reported.

"The Department continues to work very closely with the facility to ensure that all infection control measures are being followed," the department's communications director, Donna Leusner, said in a statement Wednesday. "An outbreak investigation, with assistance from the CDC, is ongoing."

How is adenovirus treated?

There is no specific treatment for adenovirus. Symptoms can be treated in a similar way to colds and flu – with fluids, over-the-counter medications, and bed rest.

Can adenovirus infection be prevented?

A vaccine for adenovirus is currently not available to the general public. The DFA approved a vaccine for adenovirus types 4 and 7 in March 2011, but only for U.S. military personnel who may be at higher risk for infection from these viruses.

Simple steps to protect yourself and your family from adenoviruses and other respiratory infections include:

  • Frequent hand washing with soap and water.
  • Avoiding close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoiding touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands.
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