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26 Oct 2020

Remembering Billie: Donations to fund Enterovirus research

Australians are being encouraged to donate to the All for Billie campaign to raise funds and awareness for enterovirus research. 

The campaign is being launched in honour of Billie Bigham, who lost her life to enterovirus myocarditis when she was 11 days old – three days after her diagnosis. November marks the anniversary of her passing.

“When Billie was a few days old, her symptoms included jaundice, lethargy and poor weight gain, which were initially thought to be due to poor feeding,” said Candice Bigham, Billie’s mum.

“When she developed a fever, further investigation led to her being diagnosed with an enterovirus infection. We had never heard of this type of infection before and didn’t understand it.”

An enterovirus is a single-stranded RNA virus that predominantly infects the gut (‘entero’ meaning intestinal). There are many different types of enterovirus infections that cause a wide range of disease in babies and children, including polio, viral meningitis and hand, foot and mouth disease. While most enterovirus infections have mild symptoms, some cases can be fatal. 

“After Billie died, we found out that she had a strain known as ‘Coxsackievirus B’, which is known to impact the heart and cause severe disease in newborn babies. The doctors believe that Billie contracted the virus while in utero,” Ms Bigham said.

Infants and children are particularly susceptible to enterovirus infections as their immunity is still developing. Enterovirus infections can initially present with similar symptoms to other microorganisms – such as fever, a runny nose, cough, skin rash, mouth blisters or muscle aches – but progress to more severe illness if it infects critical sites, such as the heart or spinal cord. It is therefore important that all possible causes of severe disease are investigated to ensure the best treatment is provided to children who are unwell.

The All for Billie campaign aims to raise $30,000 to fund enterovirus research through The Royal Melbourne Hospital Foundation for the National Enterovirus Reference Laboratory at the Doherty Institute, to analyse the enteroviruses circulating in Australia using full genome sequencing.

Led by Associate Professor Bruce Thorley, Head of the Laboratory, the project will increase understanding of enterovirus infections in the country through improved characterisation of the circulating strains. 

“There are more than 100 types of enterovirus and a relatively short stretch of genetic sequence is usually sufficient to identify one enterovirus type from another,” said Associate Professor Thorley. 

“We would like to delve deeper into the enterovirus genome to investigate whether there are key genetic differences within each type of enterovirus that may contribute to the severity of the infection.”

Coordinated by The Royal Melbourne Hospital Foundation, individual donations can be made directly to the All for Billie campaign through the Foundation’s website. All donations over AUD$2 are tax deductible.

“It’s so important that we improve our understanding of enterovirus infections, which can create great distress for the families they touch,” Ms Bigham continued.

“Billie’s death has been devastating for me and my family. It is something I don't want any other family to go through.” 

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