Adenovirus Doesn't Usually Kill, So Why Did 7 Kids Die from the Virus in New Jersey?

This picture of an adenovirus was taken using a transmission electron microscope (TEM). It has been artifically colorized. (Image credit: CDC)

This story was updated at 11:23 a.m. ET on Oct. 24 to reflect the most recent number of deaths at this time.

Seven children at a New Jersey healthcare facility have died in an outbreak of adenovirus, a virus that can cause cold and flu-like symptoms, according to health officials.

An additional 11 children at the facility, called the Wanaque Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation in Haskell, New Jersey, have also fallen ill with adenovirus, according to a statement from the New Jersey Department of Health.

The facility is not admitting any new patients until the outbreak ends, the statement said.

Adenoviruses are prolific viruses that can cause a variety of illnesses, including upper respiratory infections — such as colds — as well as pneumonia, gastrointestinal illness, conjunctivitis (pink eye) and even urinary tract infections.

Symptoms can range from mild to severe, although serious illness with adenovirus is not common, the according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Still, people with weakened immune systems are at higher risk of developing severe illness from adenovirus,  according to the CDC.

The children at the Wanaque Center fit into this category. "This outbreak is affecting medically fragile children with severely compromised immune systems," the statement said.  [The 9 Deadliest Viruses on Earth]

Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, who is not involved in the outbreak investigation, agreed that the deaths in this outbreak may be partially explained by the fact that the children had underlying medical conditions that predisposed them to severe infection.

But Adalja noted that deaths from adenovirus may not be as uncommon as we think. Adenovirus can be a cause of severe pneumonia, but "often times [doctors] say this person got pneumonia, and they never figure out" what caused it, Adalja said.

Need to vaccinate?

There are dozens of strains of adenoviruses. The one behind the New Jersey outbreak is adenovirus 7, a strain that's known to cause respiratory symptoms and spread among people living in close quarters, including military recruits. For example in 1997, an outbreak of adenovirus 7 at a U.S. Navy training center sickened more than 350 people, according to a 2002 report.

Adenovirus 7 has also been tied to cases of severe pneumonia and death in infants in South America, Adalja said.

A vaccine against adenovirus strains 4 and 7 is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but it is available only for members of the military.

However, some medical professionals think the vaccine should be considered for use in a broader population, Adalja said.

The current outbreak "underscores the need to think about the fact that, maybe there are other groups that would benefit from adenovirus vaccination," Adalja told Live Science. Studies would be needed in other high risks groups to see if the vaccine benefits them, he said.

Other ways to prevent the illness include washing hands often, avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands, and avoiding close contact with those who are sick, according to the CDC.

It's unclear exactly how the New Jersey outbreak started, but an investigation by the Health Department found "minor handwashing deficiencies" at the Wanaque Center, the statement said. The outbreak investigation is ongoing.

Originally published on Live Science.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.