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Ontario doctors warn there's a surge of hand-foot-and-mouth disease in kids and parents

Parents and doctors are warning of an increase in hand-foot-and-mouth disease this summer, especially in children.

Spike in cases is puzzling because it's happening during the summer, doctors say

Melanie Paradis says a bad case of the disease left her son Everett in agony days after this photo was taken. (Submitted by: Melanie Paradis)

Two weeks ago, Melanie Paradis got a call from her son's Belleville, Ont., daycare that there was a case of hand-foot-and-mouth disease — an illness she had never heard of but one that would have her son in agony for days.

Three days later, her one-year-old son Everett "was just crying inconsolably."

"It's not life-threatening but it's physically horrible to endure and as a parent it's heartbreaking to see your child suffering," she said.

"It's 10 days of misery."

For Everett, it started with sores in the throat that spread elsewhere. Paradis says her husband went to three different pharmacies desperate to find calamine lotion. 

"Apparently, this has spread so much that everyone was buying up a calamine lotion everywhere," she told CBC News.

Paradis is not alone. Pediatricians and hospitals are sounding the alarm about an increase in hand-foot-and-mouth disease along with other viruses at levels unprecedented for summer months.

Dr. Dan Flanders, a Toronto pediatrician, says the recent prevalence of hand-foot-and-mouth disease is a concern.

Dr Dan Flanders, a pediatrician and founder of Kindercare in Toronto said, "it's almost as if the winter time viral season is ... fully happening now in July this summer."

Flanders says he can't remember a time when his clinic was seeing this many viral cases at this time of year.

"There's probably hundreds of respiratory viruses and gastrointestinal viruses that are out-breaking throughout the province," he said.

Lifting of public health measures used to prevent COVID-19 were "essentially an invitation to all of these seasonal viruses to come in and take over again," he said.

And local hospitals are also experiencing the increase.

Dr. Kyle Vojdani, the chief and medical director in the emergency department at Toronto's Michael Garron Hospital, told CBC News in a written statement the hospital is also seeing "an increase in hand-foot-and-mouth disease in children" right now in addition to other viruses. 

What is hand-foot-and-mouth disease?

Hand-foot-and-mouth disease is communicable illness, but it is not a reportable disease in Ontario, so the province isn't tracking the number of cases in the same way as COVID-19 or monkeypox.

Symptoms include:

  • Fever.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Malaise.
  • Sore throat. 
  • Small, painful mouth ulcers.
  • Rash consisting of small red spots or blisters usually on hands, feet and in the mouth.
  • Headache.

According to guidelines offered to child-care providers by the City of Toronto, the infectious disease can spread through indirect contact with an infected person, through shared toys, objects or surfaces — making daycares an easy place for the virus to gain a foothold..

It is also spread through direct contact with saliva, stool, mucus and fluid from the blisters of an infected person.

Older patients also vulnerable

While the disease easily spreads among daycare aged-children and waves emerge from time to time, what's unusual this time around, say doctors, is it is hitting older patients hard also. 

That's something Meagan McLeod found out the hard way. 

Her son recently contracted the virus from another child during a trip with two other families. Then, it spread to the parents.

She says her son had a mild rash, while she was in deep discomfort.

"I had so many sores in my mouth and on my tongue, like it was impossible to swallow. It was so painful. And then I got more blisters on my hands and feet than he ever did as well as a rash on my legs," she said.

She had a fever that she says prevented her from sleeping more than half an hour at a time. Another parent, McLeod says, could barely walk because of painful sores on his feet. 

Meagan McLeod says the symptoms of hand-foot-and-mouth disease she experienced were worse for her and another parent than they were for her son. (Submitted by Meagan McLeod)

"I was flabbergasted," she said, noting she had not heard anything about the virus before. 

She says she hopes sharing her story helps people realize it can manifest in many different ways in different people.

Dr Dina Kulik, a pediatrician and founder of Kidcrew Medical in Toronto, says she's observed a spike in cases involving both kids and adults.,

"We most typically see it in young children, daycare-aged kids, young school-aged kids, but I've seen hundreds if not thousands of older kids with it now and their parents as well."

The variety of ages is unusual, she says. It is also "coming at the same time, or sometimes after a COVID infection in the family," she said. 

She says it is possible that it may be a "post-viral symptom of COVID" or a new strain of hand-foot-and-mouth disease manifesting a bit differently. 

The good news for patients young and not-so-young is that as uncomfortable as it can be, it is "self-resolving" after several days, she says.

Clean hands, masks and staying home when sick are the best ways to stop the spread of this and other viruses, Kulik says.

"Typically, we just need supportive measures… making sure kids are drinking appropriately, making sure they're well hydrated, and pain management."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Clara Pasieka is a CBC journalist in Toronto. She has also worked in CBC's national bureau and as a reporter in the Northwest Territories, Ontario and New Brunswick. Her investigative work following the Nova Scotia Mass Shooting was a finalist for a CAJ Award. She holds a Masters degree in Public Policy, Law and Public Administration from York University.

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