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Echoviruses are a group of enteric viruses which cause skin rashes and gastrointestinal infection. These viruses are highly infectious, are thought to be present in the guts of most people, and are a leading cause of fever in young children. Infection with an echovirus is the most common cause of aseptic meningitis, which is a potentially fatal infection. Newborn babies infected with an echovirus can suffer severe damage to several body systems, and death is a very real risk.
The term echovirus is an acronym, and stands for enteric cytopathic human orphan virus. Enteric means the virus infects the gastrointestinal tract, while cytopathic means the virus kills the cells it infects. The term orphan refers to the fact that when the virus was first discovered in the 1950s, it was not associated with any known infectious diseases. Since that time it has been found that the viruses do cause infection, but the name continues to be used.
Echoviruses can infect people of all ages, but infants, young children, people with suppressed immune systems, and the elderly, are at risk of serious infection. Serious symptoms of echovirus infection are more likely to occur in male children than in female children; the reason for this is unknown. The most common method of transmission is the fecal-oral route. This refers to a mechanism in which fecal particles are ingested, often as a result of poor hygiene or unsafe food preparation. The only exception is newborn babies, as the method of transmission is usually close contact with an infant’s mother if she carries the virus.
The most common symptom of an echovirus infection is fever, which may exceed 102 degrees Fahrenheit (39 degrees Celsius). Fever is usually present whether the infection is mild or severe. Infected infants and children are also irritable, and may have diarrhea, vomiting, or a skin rash. In the absence of complications, most patients recover fully within around ten days.
Possible complications of infection include encephalitis, meningitis, myocarditis, pericarditis, and pneumonia. These are infections of the brain, the membrane surrounding the brain, the heart, the membrane surrounding the heart, and the lungs, respectively. All of these infections are serious and potentially fatal, particularly in infants and young children.
There are no treatments specifically designed to manage infection with echoviruses. People with these infections are treated to alleviate symptoms rather than eradicate the virus. An antiviral preparation called intravenous immunoglobulin is sometimes useful for treating the infection. This treatment is an intravenous infusion of antibodies which help the patient’s immune system fight the infection.