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Mysterious "Tomato Flu" Outbreak Is Spreading Among Kids In India

The unknown disease causes an "eruption of red and painful blisters throughout the body that gradually enlarge to the size of a tomato”.

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Tom Hale

Senior Journalist

clockAug 23 2022, 11:57 UTC
School kids in the city of Alleppey in Kerala, south India.
School kids in the city of Alleppey in Kerala, south India. Image credit: AJP/Shutterstock.com

Researchers in India are sounding the alarm over what they describe as a "new" disease dubbed “tomato flu” or “tomato fever.” Causing red blisters that can enlarge to the size of a small tomato, the cause of the contagious disease is currently unknown, although some researchers suspect it might be related to other diseases known to spread in the area.

Writing in the Lancet journal Respiratory Medicine, the trio of scientists reports that over 100 children younger than 5 years have fallen sick with the infection in the Indian states of Kerala and Odisha. After first being identified on May 6 in the Kollam district of Kerala, it’s since been reported in a number of villages in the state, as well as the city of Bhubaneswar in Odisha. 

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Kids with tomato fever are said to experience an array of flu-like symptoms, including fever and body aches, but the most prominent feature is “the eruption of red and painful blisters throughout the body that gradually enlarge to the size of a tomato.”

The report says that the disease is “very contagious”, although it appears to be non-life threatening and relatively mild, lasting seven to 10 days.

“At the moment it looks like the virus is mild and goes away on its own, but most people who have had this infection are young, and we don’t really know what might happen in an immunocompromised person or if it spreads to elderly people. At the moment it is still isolated and doesn’t appear to have spread beyond India," Professor Vasso Apostolopoulos, study author and Immunology & Translational Group Leader at Victoria University, said in a statement.

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Tomato fever is diagnosed once tests have confirmed the infection is not dengue, chikungunya, Zika virus, varicella-zoster virus, or herpes. However, as the study points out, the symptoms could possibly be related to other diseases that aren’t being tested for, including hand, foot, and mouth disease.

Details on the disease are otherwise pretty thin. While public health bodies are keeping an eye on the spread of cases, scientists are yet to isolate and analyze the pathogen, which is absolutely vital if this mysterious infection is to be fully understood and controlled. 

Until more is known, independent scientists say that people should remain calm but cautious. 

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“It is unclear if these outbreaks are caused by a single virus or more than one virus. Urgent laboratory testing and genotyping of any virus identified is therefore needed to confirm whether Tomato Flu is in fact a new virus,” commented Ashley Quigley, a Senior Research Associate in Global Biosecurity at the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales, who wasn’t involved in the report. 

“In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, hypervigilance and improvement in surveillance techniques and reporting may be picking up more infections, however the long-term effects of COVID-19 could lead to an increase in illnesses in an already weakened immune system and so we need to be cautious until more is known about this infection," added Quigley.


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