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Germany: Children's ward crisis needs 'emergency plan'

December 3, 2022

Germany's child protection agency has criticized a shortage of hospital beds for youngsters hit by a severe respiratory virus. Lockdowns kept the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) at bay but it's now circulating widely.

A child intensive care unit at a hospital in Hanover, Germany on August 11, 2017
German hospitals struggling to cope with children severally ill with RSVImage: Holger Hollemann/dpa/picture alliance

Germany's child protection agency, "Deutsche Kinderschutzbund," on Saturday called for a "rapid emergency financial plan" to help hospitals cope with a wave of severe respiratory infections among young people.

Children's wards across Germany have been overwhelmed in recent weeks by cases of human respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which is highly contagious and infects babies and toddlers.

Doctors warned this week that RSV has left the pediatric intensive care system close to collapse due to a lack of beds and specialist staff.

Shortage of pediatric staff

The agency's president, Heinz Hilgers, said he was "really appalled" that the situation in German hospitals has deteriorated so quickly, describing a shortage of pediatric healthcare staff as "very dramatic."

In an interview with the Redaktionsnetzwerk Germany (RND), which supplies content to more than 60 German newspapers nationwide, he blamed "decades of neglect" by politicians that had led to a lack of specialist workers.

"Unfortunately, these issues have not been addressed because the health system is purely business-oriented and designed to operate at full capacity," he added.

Hilgers said that the shortages will not likely be overcome in the short term and called for more financial help for hospitals.

 "The children's hospitals must have beds ready in both regular wards and intensive care units so that they are ready in such emergency situations," he said.

Lack of beds, patients turned away

On Friday, a survey by the German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive Care and Emergency Medicine (DIVI) revealed the extent of the bed shortages.

It found that, in pediatric intensive care units, there was on average less than one free bed per hospital.

Of the 110 hospitals that were surveyed, 43 facilities also had no vacant beds available for children in their ordinary wards. 

One in two hospitals surveyed said they had to turn away a child in the past 24 hours despite the patient being referred from the ambulance service or emergency department.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach admitted this week that Germany has fewer than 100 intensive care beds available nationwide for children.

RSV is a risk for newborns

Relief package worth €600 million

On Friday, Germany's lower house of parliament passed a package of measures worth €600 million ($630 million) over two years aimed at boosting the finances of children's medical treatment.

The plan will see nurses transferred from adult to children's wards to relieve staff shortages.

The government also called for hospitals to postpone less urgent operations.

COVID lockdowns kept RSV at bay

Germany is one of 20 European countries registering an increasing number of RSV cases since October.

A common, highly contagious virus, RSV infects nearly all babies and toddlers by age 2, some of whom can fall seriously ill.

The virus, and others, have rebounded this year after COVID-19 lockdowns, mask-wearing and other social distancing measures meant it could not spread as easily.

RSV usually spreads from late autumn through to early spring and can also severely affect the elderly.

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm, last month authorized the world's first one-dose drug against RSV.

mm/wmr (DPA, epd)