ID Consult

Adenovirus: More than just another viral illness


Although “adenovirus” isn’t exactly a household word like flu or RSV, outbreaks of the virus are not a new problem. Between October 2013 and July 2014, public health officials in Oregon identified an increase in adenoviral infections in people with respiratory illness. Sixty-nine percent were hospitalized (136/198), 31% needed intensive care, and 18% were mechanically ventilated. Multiple types of adenovirus were recovered but the most common was adenovirus 7 (Emerg Infect Dis. 2016. doi: 10.3201/eid2206.151898).

Dr. Kristina A. Bryant, a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases at the University of Louisville (Ky.) and Norton Children's Hospital in Louisville

Dr. Kristina A. Bryant

Depending on your perspective, measures to prevent the spread of adenovirus are elegantly simple, evidence-based, public health intervention or maddeningly little more than common sense. Wash your hands often with soap and water. Avoid touching your eyes, mouth, and nose with unwashed hands. Avoid close contact with people who are sick. The latter is easier if those who are sick stay home. Prior to the start of the most recent academic semester at the University of Maryland, university officials urged students who were sick not to return to campus but to stay at home to rest and recover. Those who fell ill on campus were urged to return home via nonpublic transportation if possible. Those who stayed on campus were advised to stay in their living spaces and clean high-touch surfaces with bleach. Like other nonenveloped viruses, adenovirus is not easily destroyed by many commonly used disinfectants. Under ideal conditions, it can survive on surfaces – remaining infectious – for up to 3 months.

Back at the pediatrician’s office, “We need an adenovirus vaccine,” the mother said as she picked up her child and headed for the door.

There is, in fact, a live oral vaccine that protects against adenovirus types 4 and 7. It is only approved for use in United States military personnel aged 17-50 years and it is given to all recruits as soon as they enter basic training. It works too. Before vaccine was available, up to 80% of recruits became infected during their initial training, half of those developing significant illness and a quarter being hospitalized. When the current vaccine was introduced in 2011, there was a 100-fold decrease in adenovirus-related disease burden (from 5.8 to 0.02 cases per 1,000 person-weeks, P less than .0001). That translates to 1 death, 1,100-2,700 hospitalizations and 13,000 febrile illnesses prevented each year (Clin Infect Dis. 2014 Oct 1. doi: 10.1093/cid/ciu507).

Some experts have suggested that adenovirus vaccine could be useful in civilian populations, too, but I question what the public reception would be. We have safe influenza vaccines that reduce the need for hospitalization and reduce mortality from influenza, but we still can’t convince some people to immunize themselves and their children. In the last 4 years, flu vaccination rates among children have remained just shy of 60% and adult rates are even lower. Collectively, we don’t seem to be ready to relinquish – or at least diminish – the annual suffering that goes with flu. I have to wonder if the same would be true for adenovirus.

Dr. Bryant is a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases at the University of Louisville (Ky.) and Norton Children’s Hospital, also in Louisville. She said she had no relevant financial disclosures. Email her at

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