Alabama has been hit with the first U.S. outbreak of a foreign form of the virus that causes the childhood illness called hand, foot and mouth disease this winter, according to state health officials.
That’s causing more and tougher cases of the disease, including infections in adults and some hospitalizations, said Mary McIntyre, an infectious disease specialist at the Alabama Department of Public Health.
People are more vulnerable because they’ve never been exposed to it, McIntyre said. Even adults who likely had hand, foot and mouth as a child and have been resistant in the past are more vulnerable to the new strain.
“From a population standpoint, we really don’t have any immunity to this virus,” McIntyre said. “That’s why it’s going to continue to spread.”
She said there have been at least 37 cases reported in Alabama, including some hospitalizations, but a total number isn’t available. The oldest person was in the mid-50s.
Hand, foot and mouth — which is not related to the animal illness called hoof-and-mouth — is common in children younger than 5, who usually get fevers and small blisters on the hand, feet or in their mouth and throat. It’s easily spread through contact, even by those who have very mild or no symptoms, and there is no treatment.
In most cases, the disease runs its course in a couple of days, but young children run the risk of dehydration and adults who catch it may be at risk from dangerously high fever. It can rarely cause lethal problems in children younger than 2, including paralysis and neurological damage, but there have been no reports of those arising in this outbreak, McIntyre said.
Officials are urging residents to keep their children home if they have even mild symptoms — and do the same for themselves — to prevent it from spreading further.
“If the children are sick or the adults are sick, they don’t need to go to work; kids don’t need to go to school,” McIntyre said.