Enterovirus 71 behind ‘mystery disease’

Scientists identified this 'mystery killer' virus as a strain of hand, foot and mouth disease that killed 64 kids in Cambodia and put neighbors, like the Philippines, on alert

MANILA, Philippines – It’s not bird flu or SARS. It’s Enterovirus 71.

This virus is behind the “mystery illness” that killed 64 young children and hospitalized 66 in Cambodia, scientists in Phnom Penh said on Sunday, July 8. 

The Pasteur Institute in Phnom Penh announced that it discovered Enterovirus Type 71 in about two-thirds of patients. The virus is the “perfect explanation” for the deaths, according to the institute’s virology unit head Philippe Buchy who was cited by Bloomberg. 

“We can now focus on how to contain it,” Buchy said.

Enterovirus Type 71 is a strain of hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD), which is widespread in Asia but rare in Cambodia.

HFMD, a human disease due to intestinal viruses, is not the same as foot-and-mouth disease, which only affects animals. Children affected by HFMD generally suffer high fever, rashes, respiratory and, sometimes, neurological problems.

It took longer for the experts to identify the virus since, in the 64 of the 66 deaths reported since April, the child’s health deteriorated faster than expected.

The Enterovirus 71 usually does not lead to such quick deaths.

Most of the 64 who died are between the ages of two and three, according to Swiss pediatrician Beat Richner of Kantha Bopha children’s hospital in Phonm Penh where most of the patients were taken.

“All these children have encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and in the later hours of their life they develop a severe pneumonia with a destruction of the alveoli in the lungs. That is the reason they die,” he said. The alveoli, or air sacs, are pockets in the lungs where the exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide takes place.

Children admitted to hospitals with symptoms including high fever, breathing difficulty and neurological problems had rapid deterioration of respiratory function, Joy Rivaca Caminade, a technical officer with WHO’s Regional Office for the Western Pacific in Manila, told Bloomberg on July 6.

“This information is valuable” in the investigation, according to Nima Asgari, the leader of the emerging diseases surveillance and response group at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Cambodia, which is working with the local health ministry since July 4.

So far, no cases have been reported outside of Cambodia. It also does not appear to be contagious, Al Jazeera said.

Nonetheless, the Philippines had tightened airport screening efforts in response to the “mystery illness.” 

The WHO has put neighboring countries on alert about the killer disease. – Rappler.com and Agence France-Presse