Keith Johnson, Deseret News
Every winter, hospitals see a rise in the number of children coming to emergency rooms with a respiratory infection known as respiratory syncytial virus or RSV.

SALT LAKE CITY — Every winter, hospitals see a rise in the number of children coming to emergency rooms with a respiratory infection known as respiratory syncytial virus or RSV.

An online petition calls for changes in American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines to give more babies an RSV vaccine. But one member of the academy in Utah said there's more to the petition than concerned parents.

Stevi Padilla had premature triplets. Two of her sons passed away shortly after birth. Now 2 years old, Ryland survived, but has respiratory problems.

"Ryland got pneumonia while in the hospital," Padilla said.

The boy was given a drug called Synagis. Even with two doses, Ryland caught the virus and spent six days in the hospital.

"Any sick child is horrible," she said, "but to know that it's RSV and that it's a serious illness, it's very hard."

Currently, only babies such as Ryland, the most at-risk premature babies born before 32 weeks, are eligible to receive Synagis, based on guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics. But Padilla said those guidelines should change to give every prematurely born child the drug.

"This should be something that most premature babies should be able to have at their fingertips," said Padilla, who has signed the online petition.

Dr. Carrie Byington, a professor of pediatrics and infectious diseases at the University of Utah and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics, helped write the book on RSV guidelines for the academy.

And Byington said there's something else pushing the petition.

"Parents of premature infants are vulnerable because they fear for the health of their infant," Byington said. "They are vulnerable to pressures from commercial entities."

The company that makes Synagis, Medimmune, is involved with the petition. The drug is very expensive. Byington said a typical course costs $8,000 to $10,000 for a winter season. The company would make millions if every preemie were given Synagis, Byington said.

But she says not every baby benefits from the drug, and mortality rates for RSV are actually dropping under current guidelines.

"I am concerned that they are being used to generate sympathy," Byington said.

She said she knows parents want to protect their babies, but the most reliable source of unbiased information will come from their pediatrician, not the maker of the drug.

Padilla, however, said she wants every parent to have the option.

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Each year in the United States, 75,000 to 125,000 kids under age 1 are hospitalized due to RSV infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Almost all children are infected with the virus by their second birthday, but only a small percentage develop worse symptoms, resulting in pneumonia and other lung diseases — and potentially death.

Difficulty breathing is the most severe of potential symptoms with RSV, but a cough, sneeze, runny nose and fever might also accompany it, as well as a decreased appetite. Premature infants, children under 2 with congenital heart or chronic lung disease and children with compromised immune systems due to a medical condition or medical treatment are at highest risk for severe disease.