Colds and flu

23 March 2017

Common cold a danger after bone marrow transplant

Normally the common cold is not a serious health threat, but it can be worrisome for people with weakened immune systems.

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With winter fast approaching in the southern hemisphere, countries like South Africa need to be aware of the dangers associated with colds and flu.

An unexpected danger of the common cold is that it can be deadly for patients recovering from bone marrow transplants, a new study warns.

Weakened immune systems

The study was published recently in the journal Haematologica.

After a bone marrow transplant, patients have weakened immune systems. This puts them at risk for infections that aren't a major threat to healthy people. But until now, the common cold (rhinovirus) had been overlooked in these patients, according to Dr Michael Boeckh. He is an infectious disease specialist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Don't dismiss a common cold 

"This is such a prevalent virus... about 25% of stem cell transplant patients get infected [with rhinovirus] during the first year," he said in a centre news release.

"The virus was always considered kind of a common cold, a mild virus. People shrugged their shoulders, what should we do about it, it comes and goes," Boeckh said.

The researchers looked at information from nearly 700 patients who received bone marrow transplants at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance. The transplants took place between 1993 and 2015.

High risk of pneumonia 

The study showed that rhinovirus can cause pneumonia, but it does so less often than other viruses. However, when it does cause pneumonia in bone marrow transplant patients, it was just as deadly as other viruses.

The findings highlight the need for strong infection-prevention measures for bone marrow transplant patients and better care for those with rhinovirus-related pneumonia, Boeckh said.

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Ask the Expert

Flu expert

Dr Heidi van Deventer completed her MBChB (Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery) degree in 2004 at the University of Stellenbosch.
She has additional training in ACLS (Advanced Cardiac Life Support) and PALS (Paediatric Advanced Life Support) as well as biostatistics and epidemiology.

Dr Van Deventer is currently working as a researcher at the Desmond Tutu Tuberculosis Centre at the University of Stellenbosch.

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