A mystery skin infection, which has killed 19 people and affected hundreds, has left Vietnamese health authorities baffled. Vietnam is now asking for help from abroad to find out what exactly this disease is, what the cause is, and how to effectively treat it and stem its spread. Over 170 cases have been reported in Quang Ngai province, in the center of the country.

Patients start off with a high fever, loss of appetite, and a rash on the soles of their feet and palms of their hands. They can suffer liver problems, and eventually multiple organ failure. Local media inform that approximately 10% of infected people suffer from serious liver disorder.

Despite what it describes as extensive investigations, the country’s Health Ministry does not know what the cause of the infection is.

Thanh Long, Vietnam’s Deputy Health Minister, said:

“This disease is challenging as we have not identified the root causes. If it is just an external skin disease why is it causing deaths and failures inside internal organs?”

The baffling skin infection initially affected people last year, but appeared to die out. Last month, however, it surfaced again.

Once the infection has set in, it is extremely difficult to treat effectively. If patients are treated early on, they have a good chance of being cured, health authorities inform.

According to local media, chemicals are suspected as the most likely culprits. However, laboratory tests carried out by the health ministry have come to a dead end. In another local report, further tests should provide some results within the next ten days.

The Vietnamese government is asking the US CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) as well as WHO (World Health Organization) to help find out what the cause might be.

Nearly 100 people are currently in hospital, being treated for this mystery disease – ten of them are described as “critical”. Hospitals inform that those with milder signs and symptoms can be treated at home.

Twenty-nine patients who were effectively treated, have become ill again with the same symptoms.

Tarik Jarasevic, of WHO, in an interview with CBS, said:

“WHO is in contact with the Ministry of Health about this event and is ready to provide technical support. We are not aware of any reports of similar symptoms elsewhere in Viet Nam. The reports would suggest that the incident is localized and restricted to Ba To district.”

Jarasevic added that, according to evidence so far, this is not a human-to-human transmissible disease.

The CDC says it has not yet received a formal request for help from Vietnamese authorities.

Written by Christian Nordqvist