New virus in Australia causes brain damage in babies: Study

A new respiratory and gastrointestinal infection called parechovirus has swept through parts of Australia, causing brain damage and developmental delays in babies.
A new respiratory and gastrointestinal infection called parechovirus has swept through parts of Australia, causing brain damage and developmental delays in babies.PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY • A new respiratory and gastrointestinal infection called parechovirus has swept through parts of Australia, causing brain damage and developmental delays in babies, a study has shown.

The Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases (Asid) found that more than 100 Australian infants had developed such problems one year after they were hospitalised with the virus in 2013 and 2014, according to the study.

"This is a new virus and we know very little about it," said a statement from Asid president Cheryl Jones. "This study is helping improve our understanding of some of the long-term consequences of infection in children and the results are concerning."

She told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: "What this tells us is that this virus is not a simple virus that babies get over, and these children need to be followed up on."

The symptoms include rashes, irritability, muscle twitches and seizures, fever and diarrhoea, said Asid. In severe cases, it can cause hepatitis or encephalitis.

Parechovirus is spread like the common cold, by direct contact with nose and throat discharges from sneezing, coughing, saliva, nasal mucus or faeces, according to the Mail Online. There is no vaccine or treatment at present.

While Asid said the virus was first identified in Europe about 10 years ago, Sydney was the scene of one of the biggest outbreaks.

Starting in December 2013, it spread quickly through parts of Queensland, including Brisbane and the Gold Coast, and over 100 newborn babies were hospitalised. They refused to eat, were lethargic and had high temperatures.

The new study followed up on 46 out of 79 of the babies. Half of them showed developmental problems and nearly 20 per cent had significant neurological problems by the time they were one year old.

Now the problem is getting the word out, not just to parents but also the medical community itself.

Infectious disease expert Theo Sloots said many doctors are not yet familiar with the deadly virus. "They just think it's an infection. Awareness needs to be raised among GPs (general practitioners)."

Just last month, two infants from Toowoomba almost died from the virus. Left fighting for life in intensive care, one of them had to be given painful spinal taps and have her chest cut open.

According to the BBC, Asid's Professor Jones said she does not expect parechovirus to turn into a global epidemic, but "we can certainly be confident that we will have further outbreaks in Australia".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2016, with the headline 'New virus causes brain damage in babies: Study'. Print Edition | Subscribe