What is tomato flu? New outbreak spreads in India as scientists try to decode mysterious virus

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The surgence of a new influenza called tomato flu — because of the formation of red blisters that later come to resemble tomatoes — has led to India’s government issuing an advisory to all states.

More than 82 children younger than five years of age, predominantly in southern Indian states, have reported the infection in local government hospitals, said the federal health ministry on Tuesday, citing data till 26 July, reported Indian news agency ANI.

Also known as tomato fever, it is a variant of the Hand Foot and Mouth Disease (HFMD) but scientists have still not found out the exact nature of the virus.

Officials have explained that even though the flu virus shows symptoms akin to other viral infections, it is not related to SARS-CoV-2 – the scientific name for the novel coronavirus that causes Covid – monkeypox, dengue or chikungunya.

The initial symptoms of the disease resemble those of other viral infections and include mild fever, poor appetite, malaise and often a sore throat followed by fever, sores in the mouth and a skin rash.

These sores are usually found on the tongue, gums, inside cheeks, palms and soles.

Similar to other viral infections, symptoms also include fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, fever, dehydration, swelling of joints, body aches and common influenza-like symptoms, the federal health ministry said.

After the first case of the flu was reported in Kerala state’s Kollam district on 6 May, the endemic illness led to an alert in neighbouring Tamil Nadu and Karnataka states as well.

Twenty-six more infections in children aged between one and nine years were reported from eastern Odisha by the Regional Medical Research Centre in state capital Bhubaneswar. Cases have also been confirmed in Haryana in northern India.

Some other affected parts of the country include Anchal, Aryankavu and Neduvathur in Kerala.

Officials have said if children show symptoms, they should be quickly isolated for 5-7 days to prevent the spread of infection to other children or adults.

The flu is a self-limiting infectious disease and the symptoms of the condition resolve in a few days, officials said in the advisory.

As of now, the Indian government’s advisory has said that there are no disease-specific medications available for treatment. People can consult doctors for supportive therapy, including getting paracetamol for fever and body ache.

Those infected can isolate, take plenty of rest and ingest fluids for recovery. Hot water sponges can be used for relief from irritation and rashes, said the Indian government’s advisory.

The health ministry has also said throat or nasopharyngeal samples of a suspected infectious person can be collected within 48 hours of illness.

Authorities are using molecular and serological tests to diagnose children showing symptoms for dengue, chikungunya, zika virus, varicella-zoster virus and herpes.

After these viral infections are ruled out, a diagnosis of tomato flu in a patient is considered.