Brittany Cassar still shudders to think what might have happened if she and her partner Aaron Minett hadn’t trusted their instincts and headed to hospital when their baby boy became sick.
“I keep thinking… if I left it...” she contemplates, her voice tapering off.
Initially they thought their 10-day-old had a cold but, unknowingly to them, Jasper had contracted human parechovirus, a lesser known virus that is dangerous to newborns and can have devastating effects.
“It’s a respiratory and gastrointestinal virus that can turn septic and also cause seizures and can deprive the child of oxygen and can also lower or increase the heart rate,” Brittany said.
Jasper was in Manning Hospital for four nights and it was days before a diagnosis was confirmed. There was a time Brittany thought she might lose him.
Now, six months later, with the impact of the experience and knowledge of the potential long-term effects and developmental delays, the young mum is determined to raise awareness.
Most concerning for Brittany is that there seems to be a lack of knowledge by general practitioners.
“I’ve been to three different doctors who all just looked at me. No one knew what it was. It’s a bit worrying.”
If someone is talking they can give it to a baby, which is why it is so worrying because it is so easy to spread.Brittany Cassar
When Jasper first became sick, he was showing signs of a cold/flu virus.
“He was lethargic and didn’t want to feed and was wanting to lay on me and was very upset. My mum instinct kicked in and I thought something was not right.”
Brittany booked in a doctor’s appointment and took to a mother’s support page online to talk about her concerns and the symptoms.
“I was told it was just a cold virus. About 10 people commented on it with half of them saying not to worry and he was probably having his two-week growth spurt,” Brittany said.
“Some of the mothers had two or more kids so I did take that into consideration.
“My initial thought was to wait for the doctor appointment I had the next day but his father insisted we head to the emergency room.
“We went straight through to the triage nurse who said we had to get him out the back because he was 39.9 degrees. I was mortified. I had just checked and he was 38.5. She said that whatever it was, it was working quickly
“We were lucky to get in as fast as we did. There was absolutely no one in the waiting room and it was the middle of summer and a 40 degree day.”
Jasper was seen to by three nurses and a paediatrician.
“They had multiple attempts at inserting a cannula in his arm and didn’t allow me near him. They said I might want to get out because it would be hard to watch.”
She said it also took two days of attempts to get a spinal tap sample and three days to determine exactly what was wrong with him.
“By day three he had not breastfed since we arrived and his blood sugar levels had dropped. He was hooked up to IV, multiple cords monitoring his heart rate and oxygen and was also receiving antibiotics, paracetamol and sugar water.
“I couldn’t believe it was happening.”
Jasper was given his own room and it was 4am when they brought him back after a spinal tap.
Brittany was asleep and woke up to the nurse who was checking his temperature and monitors every hour.
“I hadn’t seen him for three hours. He was so sick he wasn’t crying, but was moaning in pain.”
She said one paediatrician suggested it could be meningitis as it presents as something very similar and the staff got to work to make sure the bacteria was gone from his spine and brain.
“I wasn’t sure what it was.”
During their stay a nurse, who was weighing Jasper’s nappies, asked if Brittany had noticed if he’d had diarrhea the past couple of days.
“It was difficult as a new mum to know what are normal poos and diarrhea. Because I was breastfeeding as well, I had no idea. I thought I was doing the right thing,” she said.
The nurse said she thought it might be a new virus called parechovirus.
“I had relief. I was happy until I did my own research. I’m so glad I didn’t leave it until the next day.”
By day four a nurse requested morphine to help ease Jasper’s pain and Brittany agreed to it. “Anything to take the pain away.”
He went to sleep and during the night Brittany was woken by a tap on her shoulder and six nurses in the room as his heart rate, oxygen levels and temperature dropped.
“They had the machines going and the oxygen. His temperature had dropped to 34 degrees.
“They said they can just turn like that. The scariest part was all the noises. I thought I was going to lose him.
“I think it was that day they came back and his temperature was low. They had him on oxygen and everything and tried to wean him off.”
The following day he started to improve.
It was confirmed Jasper had contracted Parechovirus and the couple learned it had been “going around”. It was big in John Hunter Hospital in 2014 and Brittany was provided with a fact sheet about it, which she still carries around.
Two days later he started to feed again and Brittany and Adam were able to take him home the day before Christmas. “It was a good Christmas present.”
Parechovirus is spread by saliva.
“If someone is talking they can give it to a baby, which is why it is so worrying because it is so easy to spread,” said Brittany.
“I don’t know where he caught it. We took him into town and two days after that he started to get sick. Maybe it was taking him into town. There are all these things in my mind about where he could have got it.”
Now seven-months-old, Jasper is a happy baby who is always smiling, but Brittany said his ongoing issues are a constant reminder of what happened.
He has trouble gaining weight (he was a healthy weight up until he became ill), and some developmental delay (at six months he was presenting as a three-month-old when it comes to how he was sitting up and rolling).
She has to mention the illness each time she visits the nurses at Community Health for his check-ups because of their concerns.
She said that as a gastro virus, it could have done something to his stomach, and the illness is probably why he's not as strong.
Her most recent nurse was familiar with the virus and recommended an MRI. “She told me that babies have been diagnosed with cerebral palsy and developmental issues right up to seven years old.”