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Researchers race to identify and understand the new virus behind blistering ‘tomato flu’

Children are more susceptible to tomato flu.

Children are more susceptible to tomato flu. Photo: Getty

A new mystery virus that affects children in particular and emerged just months ago is worrying health authorities.

The first cases of the virus, called ‘tomato flu’, were detected in May in India. Since then, more than 100 children under nine have come down with the illness.

The virus is not related to COVID-19, although it has many similar symptoms. Patients report fever, fatigue, intense joint pain and severe, painful rashes.

Experts are still determining if tomato flu is a new variant of hand, foot, and mouth disease, or whether it might be an after-effect of dengue fever, known as chikungunya, in children.

Why the name?

Tomato flu is so named because of the eruptions of red and painful blisters that appear across the body of an infected person. These  gradually enlarge to reach the size of a tomato and are reported to resemble those associated with monkeypox.

The virus also includes common influenza-like symptoms, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and dehydration.

Who does it hit hardest?

Children are at a greater risk of contracting tomato flu as it spreads through close contact. Younger children in particular are more susceptible because they touch and taste dirty surfaces, and put things directly into their mouths.

Medical journal The Lancet says proper hygiene is key to preventing the disease’s spread.

“The best solution for prevention is the maintenance of proper hygiene and sanitisation of the surrounding necessities and environment as well as preventing the infected child from sharing toys, clothes, food, or other items with other non-infected children,” it reported.

Common symptoms include high fever and fatigue in children. Photo: Getty

Tomato flu is very contagious, and there are not yet any antiviral drugs or vaccines to treat or prevent it. Health experts recommend isolation for anyone infected with the virus to prevent it from spreading. 

“Isolation should be followed for five-seven days from symptom onset to prevent the spread of infection to other children or adults,” The Lancet said.

Other remedies include rest, consuming plenty of fluids, and warm water sponges to relieve blisters and rashes. Paracetamol provides pain relief for fever and other symptoms. 

The unknowns

Professor Vasso Apostolopoulos, immunology and translational group leader at Victoria University and co-author of The Lancet paper, told NewsGP that scientists are still trying to identify exactly what this virus is.

“Its symptoms are similar to dengue fever and chikungunya virus, which are common in the area, but it doesn’t appear to be them,” she said.

‘It looks like the virus is mild and goes 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 immuno-compromised person or if it spreads to elderly people.

‘At the moment it is still isolated and doesn’t appear to have spread beyond India.’

Diagnosis of the virus appears to be a matter of elimination. Doctors must first rule out dengue, chikungunya, zika virus, varicella-zoster virus and herpes.

The virus was first identified in the Indian state of Kerala and has spread to the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu, Odisha and Haryana.

Australia has not reported any cases of tomato flu.

The Kerala Health Department is monitoring cases of the disease, and taking measures to prevent it from spreading to other parts of India or the world.

Topics: India
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