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Hand, foot and mouth disease reported on increase in Pittsburgh area

| Tuesday, July 8, 2014, 11:06 p.m.

A contagious viral illness is causing longer-lasting fevers, worse rashes and is sickening more children this summer in the Pittsburgh area, pediatricians say.

Hand, foot and mouth disease primarily strikes children younger than 10, spreading through close contact and bodily fluids such as saliva. At Children's Community Pediatrics South Hills in Bethel Park, physicians have been seeing about two patients every day for the past month, Dr. Michael Frac said.

He said that ranks among the clinic's heaviest case volumes for the disease in the past decade. Physicians there typically see about two cases a week during the summer, when the sickness tends to be more prevalent.

“It's just been our impression that a lot of it's been going through the day care centers,” Frac said. He said doctors have heard of many more cases informally from parents calling for guidance.

But public health officials said it's tough to know whether overall case numbers are up. Pennsylvania law does not classify hand, foot and mouth disease as a reportable ailment, so no formal tallies exist.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta did not respond to a request for comment.

“Sometimes we get calls about day care outbreaks, but we haven't heard anything lately,” said Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department. She called hand, foot and mouth a “pretty benign” disease that can look worse than it is.

The roughly weeklong sickness is rarely fatal. Doctors said it can start with a fever and lead to a blisterlike rash on the feet and hands. Sometimes it can cause sores on the inside of the mouth.

Apart from taking painkillers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, people with the disease can't do much but wait it out, Hacker said.

Still, experts advise some of those affected to see a doctor. They include babies under the age of 1 who have a fever, anyone with a fever that lasts more than two or three days, children with facial blisters near the eyes and people unable to drink sufficient fluids.

“There's no question we're seeing a lot more of it the last couple weeks and months than we've seen the rest of the year,” said Dr. Robin Gehris, chief of pediatric dermatologic surgery at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC.

Gehris said longer-lasting fevers and more severe blisters that have appeared over the last couple of summers could stem from an especially strong strain of the virus. She and other doctors encourage adults and children to avoid the disease through frequent and thorough hand-washing, especially after using the bathroom or changing a diaper.

They also advise people to avoid putting their hands in their mouth. Children who come down with the illness should be isolated from other youngsters while they remain contagious, doctors said.

“The most important thing is making sure the child stays hydrated,” said Dr. Marian Michaels, who works in the pediatric infectious disease department at Children's Hospital. She said mouth sores can discourage sick kids from drinking enough fluids.

Hand, foot and mouth disease is unrelated to foot-and-mouth disease, which affects cattle, sheep and pigs, according to the CDC website.

Adam Smeltz is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5676 or asmeltz@tribweb.com.

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