Mysterious Cambodian Disease Linked to Hand, Foot And Mouth Outbreak

By Amir Khan on July 9, 2012 11:34 AM EDT

A mysterious deadly disease affecting children across Cambodia may be a virulent strain of hand, foot and mouth disease, a common childhood illness, officials said. Lab tests confirmed that Enterovirus 71 (EV- 71), a deadly strain of the disease, is to blame for at least 59 cases seen since April, 52 of which have been deadly, according to the World Health Organization.

"As far as I'm aware, EV-71 was not identified as a virus in Cambodia before," Dr. Nima Asgari, who is heading the WHO's investigation, told CBS News. "We are a bit more confident. We are hoping that we can come up with something a bit more conclusive in the next day or so."

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Hand, food and mouth disease is rampant in Asia and typically causes a telltale rash. It is most common in children under 5, and the younger a child gets it the more dangerous it can be. Soon after the child contracts the disease, they may develop fever, poor appetite and sore throat that progresses to painful sores in the mouth. The sores eventually blister and turn into ulcers.

The majority of the Cambodia cases involved children under between 3 months and 11 years old. It started as a fever and respiratory problems and developed into neurological issues. Blistering wasn't prevalent in the 59 cases in Cambodia, but experts say steroids administered by doctors masked some of the symptoms.

Epidemiologists from the WHO are still putting information together but said of the 24 samples tested so far, 15 were positive for EV-71. Some samples tested positive for other diseases, such as dengue fever or Streptococcus suis, which can cause hearing loss and meningitis.

Hand, foot and mouth disease is related to polio and is spread through sneezing, coughing or close contact. There is no vaccine or treatment for the disease, but the illness typically passes without incident. In Vietnam last year, 110,000 people were sickened with hand, foot and mouth disease, which killed 116.

"The cause of the disease may not be new, but the scale at which it is occurring has not been observed in recent years," the WHO told the Wall Street Journal. "Possible causes of the disease are being considered but definite identification may take some time." 

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