HEV-68: Where Did The Polio-like Enterovirus Come From?

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Methods for reporting the enterovirus vary by state. Image courtesy of the CDC

Methods for reporting the enterovirus vary by state. Image courtesy of the CDC

Parents in California and around the United States are on high alert over the news of children being paralyzed by a virus. The symptoms range from mild illness to polio-like symptoms.

To date there have been 20 cases, with five of the children paralyzed; no recovery evident. While researchers and medical professionals are trying to figure out the exact cause, many experts believe that an enterovirus could be responsible for this illness.

History and Background of the Eneterovirus 68

A California lab first discovered this strain of enterovirus in a California lab in 1962 after four children developed a severe respiratory illness. Between 1970 and 2005, there were only 26 reports of enterovirus 68 to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Since the year 2000, officials have placed a closer watch on this virus, and there have been 47 cases.

The enterovirus in general typically peaks during the summer months during July, August, and September, causing cold symptoms. Fever, headache, runny nose, cough, skin rash, and body aches are common symptoms of people who have one of the mild strains of the enterovirus. 

Enterovirus 71

In 1969, the same California lab discovered another strain of the enterovirus; enterovirus 71. Enterovirus 71 is more common than enterovirus 68 and according to CNN, health officials are more concerned about enterovirus 71, as it is associated with severe neurological problems.

Neurological problems include aseptic meningitis, paralysis, and encephalitis (swelling in the brain). According to the CDC, there were several outbreaks of paralysis due to enterovirus 71 in Europe during the 1960’s and 1970’s. Here in the United States, enterovirus wasn’t reported to the  National Enterovirus Surveillance System (NESS) until 1983 – between then and 2005, there were 270 reported cases of enterovirus 71.

In a study entitled, “Antigenic Diversity of Enteroviruses Associated with Nonpolio Acute Flaccid Paralysis, India, 2007–2009” researchers discovered that enterovirus 71 was the most prevalent cause among non-polio paralysis, followed by enterovirus 13, and then the coxsackievirus B5. Researchers commented that the challenging part is with a wide range of serotypes that stem from the enterovirus, this makes a “challenging problem” as they try to develop anti-enteroviral strategies.

Enterovirus Transmission

According to the CDC, Non-polio enterovirus lives in the infected person’s stool, in their secretions, in mucus from their eyes, nose, or mouth and in fluid from blisters. You can be exposed to the enterovirus by having close contact with the infected person (such as holding or shaking hands), touching objects and surfaces that have the virus on them, changing diapers of an infected person, or drinking water that contains the virus.

Once you’ve become infected (even if you don’t have symptoms) your body can shed the virus for several weeks or longer.

The enterovirus can live in drinking water. Image courtesy of the EPA

The enterovirus can live in drinking water. Image courtesy of the EPA

Enterovirus and Pregnancy

Pregnant women who become infected right before delivery can pass the virus onto their baby. Generally the baby will only have a mild case, in rare cases, babies can develop a serious infection. According to the CDC, most women who are pregnant during the summer and fall months will come in contact with the virus. Even if a pregnant woman becomes infected, she isn’t likely to get sick and if she does, it is likely to be a mild illness.

Non-Polio Prevention and Treatment

According to the CDC, there is no treatment for non-polio enterovirus, nor is there a vaccine. Remember that most cases only result in mild symptoms, if any at all. If you do experience symptoms, you can take over-the-counter medications to alleviate those symptoms. However, in rare cases, the virus can cause severe illnesses that need medical attention, so if you are concerned about your symptoms you should talk with your doctor.

Enterovirus 68, 71

While doctors don’t know exactly what is causing this ‘mystery’ illness, it is important to keep in mind that serious cases are rare. Preventing the enterovirus is your best option and that includes thorough hand washing (especially after using the restroom or changing a diaper), avoiding close contact with anyone who is sick, or who has been sick recently, and disinfecting surfaces. These simple measures can go along way in preventing the enterovirus as well as other transmissible illnesses like the seasonal or H1N1 flu, or norovirus/stomach flu infections.

If you are pregnant or are concerned about your symptoms, it is best to talk your doctor.

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