Researchers across Australia will work together to study an emerging virus that has caused three outbreaks of serious illness in infants since 2013.

Parechovirus can cause sepsis-like and meningitis-like infection leading to developmental delays in severe cases.

The research is funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) of Australia through a Centre of Research Excellence called the Australian Partnership for Preparedness Research on Infectious Diseases Emergencies (APPRISE). APPRISE is a national network developing research to guide an evidence-based response for an effective emergency response to infectious diseases in Australia.

Professor Soren Alexandersen, Director of the Geelong Centre for Emerging Infectious Diseases (GCEID) and APPRISE researcher, said that this particular strain of parechovirus appears to have emerged in Australia in the spring of 2013 lasting through the summer of 2014, followed by a second epidemic in 2015/2016 and a third in 2017/2018.

“Parechovirus is an emerging infection causing epidemics every two years, and the outbreaks in Australia seem to be larger and more severe than elsewhere,” he said.

“We know that during both the second and the third outbreak, more than 100 babies were hospitalised between July and December 2015 and 2017, respectively, with many of those babies needing intensive care. Infants under three months of age are at highest risk.”

He said there are currently no specific treatments or vaccines for parechovirus and, because there is no routine testing, many more infants may remain undiagnosed.

“There are many unanswered questions about this virus and our research will characterise clinical cases from the 2017 outbreak and the genetic code of the virus in the last three epidemics will be studied,” he said.

Researchers based in Queensland, where 190 infants were hospitalised in the 2015/2016 epidemic, will also examine the parechovirus strains to see if the genetic code is related to disease severity.

Associate Professor Stephen Lambert, an epidemiologist at Queensland Health and an APPRISE researcher, said the team was looking at genetic differences between mild and more severe cases in the hope of finding a viral marker associated with more severe infections.

“Finding markers would help us to prepare real-time diagnostic tools for parechovirus strains, especially those causing more severe disease, with the aim of making these publicly available for hospital and community surveillance,” he said.

Associate Professor Lambert said coordination between researchers in four states (Victoria, NSW, Queensland and WA) will help establish the collaborative networks and sharing of samples and data that is so essential for an effective national research response to emerging infectious diseases.

“APPRISE is keen to understand potential emerging infectious diseases, and this includes known agents that are beginning to spread, like parechovirus, and new or re-emerging infectious agents.”

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