Tomato flu: New virus likely to hit Australia, experts warn

A new virus that causes 'tomato-sized' blisters on the body and mostly impacts children is highly likely to spread to Australia, disease experts warn.

Tomato Flu, a virus detected in India, has reportedly infected more than 80 children under the age of five.

While we know it causes painful blisters on the body, which eventually swell to the size of a tomato, and it may just be a mild illness, there are still questions surrounding what kind of virus Tomato Flu actually is.

Infectious diseases expert Associate Professor Paul Griffin told Yahoo News Australia experts still need more information about the virus which was first identified in the Kerala region of India on May 6 this year.

There have been over 80 cases of Tomato Flu reported in children under the age of five. Source: Getty Image
There have been over 80 cases of Tomato Flu reported in children under the age of five. Source: Getty Image

Scientists investigating Tomato Flu say it may be be an "unusual manifestation" of an existing virus, Prof Griffin said.

"We do need more information which will obviously come in time," Prof Griffin said.

"Some have said that it's likely a coxsackievirus of the enterovirus family, so a relative of the viruses that we know in Australia cause hand, foot and mouth disease for example."

He added other experts have speculated it could be a manifestation of the Chikungunya virus, [a mosquito-borne virus] given the similar symptoms.

"It could also be a heightened awareness of a virus. It's been around for some time, so we do need to make sure we get all the information before we comes to too many conclusions," he said.

Could Tomato Flu come to Australia?

With any new virus comes genuine concern it could make its way to Australia.

With international travel back on, after borders were closed due to Covid-19, there's always a chance Tomato Flu could come to our shores.

"The world is a very small place once again now and as we've seen with every virus that we've discussed in recent times, it's very unusual or it'd be unlikely to expect that it wouldn't spread to more countries," Prof Griffin said.

"I think that the prospect of keeping any viral infection geographically isolated these days is very unlikely.

"So if it [Tomato Flu] is truly a new viral infection, then the prospect of it coming to Australia would in fact be quite high in time, I would think."

People purchase from a Sunday market as umbrellas are installed on a hot summer day in Sopore District Baramulla Jammu and Kashmir India.
Tomato Flu was first detected in India in May and experts are working to find out more about it. Source: NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ashley Quigley, a Senior Research Associate in Global Biosecurity at UNSW's Kirby Institute, said in an Australian Science Media Centre press release people should exercise caution until more is known about tomato flu.

"In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, hyper-vigilance and improvement in surveillance techniques and reporting may be picking up more infections," she said.

"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."

She also added it is unclear if the outbreaks associated with Tomato Flu are caused by a single virus or multiple.

What are the symptoms of Tomato Flu?

Tomato Flu shares symptoms with foot and mouth disease, which is common throughout the world, even in Australia.

Symptoms include fever, fatigue, body aches and blisters, which resulted in the name of the virus.

Professor Vasso Apostolopoulos, Pro Vice-Chancellor, and Immunology and Translational Group Leader at Victoria University, said the name of the virus has nothing to do with actual tomatoes.

"It has been called tomato virus because the symptoms include small grape-like blisters, that can actually grow as big as a tomato, and are red like a tomato," Prof Apostolopoulos said.

"It's got nothing to do with tomatoes or eating tomatoes."

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