A mysterious illness responsible for the death of dozens of Cambodian children has remained unidentified since cases were first reported in April.
According to the World Health Organization and the Cambodian Health Ministry, the illness has taken the lives of 52 people and has sickened many others.
The disease is known to cause paralysis, brain swelling, neurological symptoms, severe respiratory distress leading to rapid shutdown, and death. In some cases, victims were described as having their lungs “burned.”
Most of the affected individuals were children under the age of 3.
Medical investigators are now suggesting that they may have identified the cause of the disease – the EV-71 virus – after conducting a series of lab tests on some of those stricken with the illness.
EV-71 (Enterovirus 71) is largely known for its ability to cause Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease (not to be confused with Foot and Mouth Disease which occurs in cattle and other animals). As Alexandra Sifferlin of TIME writes, Hand, Foot, and Mouth Disease
gets its name from a rash that appears on infected persons’ palms and soles (sometimes with blisters), along with painful, red, blister-like lesions on the tongue, gums and inside of the cheeks.
Early symptoms of hand, foot and mouth disease include fever, followed by sore throat and sometimes a poor appetite and malaise. One or two days after the fever begins, painful sores may develop in the mouth or throat, and rashes may then appear within one or two days after that. The usual incubation period – the time from infection to first symptoms – is about three to seven days.
It is also interesting to note that enteroviruses are of the same family as the polio virus.
The symptoms prompting the hospitalization of the children with the disease are generally high fever, breathing difficulty, and encephalitis. Over a matter of a few hours, the conditions greatly worsen, with death occurring within only a matter of days.
However, it is important to note that the evidence supporting the claims of enteroviruses as the cause of the mystery illness is rather scant. For instance, it is admitted that, in many cases, “relevant medical information may have been omitted and not all the children were tested before they died.”
In fact, samples were collected from only 24 people with just 15 of them coming back positive for EV-71. This should suggest that much more evidence is needed before claims that the EV-71 is the cause of the illness.