An outbreak of a new viral infection called tomato flu, first detected in children in the south Indian state of Kerala in May, has spread to two other states.
According to an article in the Lancet Respiratory Medicine, 82 children under the age of five in Kerala were diagnosed with the virus on July 26.
Cases have now been reported in the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu and in Odisha in the east, where children as young as nine have been infected, although the virus usually affects under fives.
Scientists are still trying to figure out exactly what this virus is. It is also called tomato flu because of the painful red blisters it produces on the body, and it is very contagious. Children are especially vulnerable because it spreads easily through close contact, such as through diapers, touching unclean surfaces, or putting things in the mouth.
“The rare viral infection is endemic and is considered non-life-threatening; however, due to the terrible experience of the Covid-19 pandemic, vigilant management is desirable to prevent further outbreaks,” the Lancet article said.
Doctors say diagnosing tomato flu is difficult because the symptoms are very similar to those of Covid, chikungunya and dengue fever. The latter two are common in India during the rainy season and are spread by mosquitoes. Chikungunya is especially widespread in Kerala.
The Lancet article says tomato flu may be an aftereffect of chikungunya or dengue fever in children rather than a viral infection.
It adds: “The virus could also be a new variant of the viral hand, foot-and-mouth disease, a common infectious disease that mainly affects children aged one to five years and immunocompromised adults, and some case studies have even shown to reduce hand, foot, and mouth disease in immunocompetent adults.”
dr. Suneela Garg, a senior health official in the Delhi government, said: “I agree that chikingunya and dengue can make children vulnerable to tomato flu because their immune systems are weaker. We have not yet had any cases in Delhi and I am confident it is won’t be a problem.”
The spread of tomato flu comes as India has recorded a steady increase in Covid cases in recent weeks, along with cases of swine flu.
Prof Dileep Mavalankar, from the Institute of Public Health in Gandhinagar, said: “Swine flu had decreased during Covid but is now increasing again in major cities. But because the test for it is expensive, few people are tested for it, so the numbers are unclear.”