Foot-mouth disease eyed as ailment that killed 52

Posted: July 10, 2012

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia - A virulent strain of hand, foot and mouth disease may be the mystery illness that has killed at least 52 children in Cambodia, according to a joint statement from the World Health Organization and the Cambodian Health Ministry.

The virus, known as EV-71, can result in paralysis, brain swelling and death. Most of the Cambodian cases involved children younger than 3 who experienced fever, respiratory problems that led to rapid shutdown, and sometimes neurological symptoms.

Epidemiologists are still trying to piece together information about the cases by interviewing parents, said Nima Asgari, who is leading the WHO investigation. Of 24 samples tested, 15 came back positive for EV-71.

"As far as I'm aware, EV-71 was not identified as a virus in Cambodia before," Asgari said, adding that based on the information now available it's likely that the majority of untested patients were infected with it.

Hand, foot and mouth disease is spread by sneezing, coughing and having contact with fluid from blisters or infected feces. It is caused by enteroviruses in the same family as polio. No vaccine or specific treatment exists, but illness is typically mild and most children recover quickly without problems.

The virus gets its name from the symptoms it causes, including rash, mouth sores and blisters covering the hands and feet. Many infected children don't get sick but can spread it to others.

Neighboring Vietnam has been battling a surging number of hand, foot and mouth disease cases for the last few years, with EV-71 also wreaking havoc there. Last year, the disease sickened more than 110,000 people and killed 166, mostly children whose immune systems were not strong enough to fend off the infection.

China is also experiencing an outbreak, and more than 240 people have died of the disease there this year, according to China's Health Ministry.

AP medical writer Margie Mason contributed to this article from Hanoi, Vietnam.

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