Respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) is the major cause of lower respiratory tract infections in infants. Since epidemiological data from Germany are scarce, a large retrospective hospital based analysis was performed. In the first part of the study, laboratory records were checked for RSV positive specimens from January 1988 to December 1997. A total of 1664 specimens were positive corresponding to 1171 episodes in 1064 patients; 88% were up to 4 years old and 47% up to 3 months old. The percentage of premature newborns from all patients 0-4 years old was 24%. The rate of nosocomial infection was 38%. The core RSV season began in December, lasted until April, and peaked in January and February. In the second part of the study, from April 1, 1997 to March 31, 1999, which encompassed two RSV winter seasons, patients with the ICD-9 coded discharge diagnoses of lower respiratory tract infections, bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) and prematurity were analysed. Of the premature newborns, 25% were tested RSV positive at least once up to the age of 1 year, as were 52% of those with BPD. The rehospitalisation rate due to RSV infection was 22% in patients with BPD, and 8.9% in all premature newborns. Of patients with community acquired RSV infection, 12% required intensive care and 6% had to be ventilated mechanically. The mortality rates in both parts of the study were 0.8% and 0.7%, respectively.
Conclusion: Respiratory syncytial virus infection in young children is also of major importance in Germany. Although the mortality rate is low, the high incidence and the severity of the disease in the particular risk group of premature infants with chronic lung disease contribute to a very high disease burden.