Health experts are monitoring an outbreak of viral infection detected in children in the southern Indian state of Kerala earlier this year, which has now spread to two other regions.
More than 82 children under the age of five had been diagnosed with the virus as of July 26, according to the journal Lancet Respiratory Medicine.
Researchers say the disease dubbed ‘tomato flu’ is not life threatening but is a ‘highly contagious’ disease which appears to be a variant of hand, foot and mouth diseases – but it remains to be confirmed.
Scientists are still trying to identify exactly what the virus is. Here’s what they’ve said so far.
What do we know about the “tomato flu”?
Its symptoms are similar to those of dengue fever and the chikungunya virus, which are common in the region, but it doesn’t appear to be them, said Vasso Apostolopoulos of the University of Victoria.
Professor Apostolopoulos is the head of the university’s Immunology and Translational Group and co-author of the Lancet paper.
“Similarly, it also shares symptoms with hand-foot-mouth disease,” Professor Apostolopoulos said.
The first two diseases are known to be spread by mosquitoes. And hand, foot and mouth disease is a common infectious disease that mainly affects children between the ages of one and five and immunocompromised adults.
Professor Apostolopoulos said it appeared the virus was mild and went away on its own.
“But most people who have had this infection are young, and we don’t really know what might happen in an immunocompromised person or if it spreads to older people,” she said.
She said children are at increased risk of being exposed to tomato flu because viral infections are common in this age group.
Why the name?
It is called the tomato virus because of the eruption of painful red blisters all over the body and some can become as big as a tomato and are red like the fruit.
“It has nothing to do with tomatoes or eating tomatoes,” Professor Apostolopoulos said.
Given its similarities to hand-foot-mouth disease, the Lancet states that if tomato flu in children is not controlled and prevented, transmission could lead to serious consequences by spreading to adults as well.
When was the virus first identified?
In May this year, it was first identified in the Kollam district of Kerala, India.
More than 82 infected children under the age of five have been reported by local government hospitals.
“We are still trying to identify exactly what this virus is,” Prof Apostolopoulos said.
There is a case study of a 13 month old girl and her five year old brother returning from India to the UK who had these symptoms and tested positive for enterovirus which is one of the causes of foot-and-mouth disease.
“[It] shares some sequences with a virus strain called coxsackie A16, but it’s not quite the same, although it looks like it probably originated from the clade of that virus,” Prof Apostolopoulos said.
In this case, she says it’s likely that tomato flu could be a variant of foot-and-mouth disease, but that “needs to be confirmed by more cases and genome analysis.”
How does the virus affect people?
The main symptoms seen in children include high fever, skin rashes and joint pain.
Tomato flu blisters resemble those seen with monkeypox virus in young individuals and rashes also appear on the skin leading to skin irritation.
Severe joint pain is another symptom associated with the virus.
Similar to other viral infections, other symptoms include fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration, and body aches.
What are the known treatments for tomato flu?
There are no antiviral drugs or vaccines available for the treatment or prevention of tomato flu.
The recommendation is that isolation should be followed for five to seven days from the onset of symptoms to prevent the spread of infection to other children or adults, according to the Lancet.
It says the best means of prevention is “maintaining proper hygiene and disinfection” as well as preventing infected children from sharing toys, clothing, food or other items with others. other uninfected people.
Where are the cases?
Cases have now been reported in neighboring Tamil Nadu state and Odisha in the east, where children as young as nine have been infected, although the virus usually affects children under five.
So far, apart from Kerala, Tamilnadu and Odisha, no other parts of India have been affected by the virus.
“At the moment it is still isolated and does not appear to have spread beyond India,” Prof Apostolopoulos said.
Precautionary measures are being taken by the Health Department of Kerala to monitor the spread of the virus infection and prevent its spread to other parts of India.
Professor Apostolopoulos says there is no cause for alarm at this time, but it is important to understand the prevention, symptoms and management of tomato flu.