Large-scale outbreaks of hand, foot, and mouth disease (HFMD) occurred repeatedly in the Central Plain of China (Shandong, Anhui, and Henan provinces) from 2007 until now. These epidemics have increased in size and severity each year and are a major public health concern in mainland China.
Phylogenetic analysis was performed and a Bayesian Markov chain Monte Carlo tree was constructed based on the complete VP1 sequences of HEV71 isolates. These analyses showed that the HFMD epidemic in the Central Plain of China was caused by at least 5 chains of HEV71 transmission and that the virus continued to circulate and evolve over the winter seasons between outbreaks. Between 1998 and 2010, there were 2 stages of HEV71 circulation in mainland China, with a shift from evolutionary branch C4b to C4a in 2003-2004. The evolution rate of C4a HEV71 was 4.99×10(-3) substitutions per site per year, faster than the mean of all HEV71 genotypes. The most recent common ancestor estimates for the Chinese clusters dated to October 1994 and November 1993 for the C4a and C4b evolutionary branches, respectively. Compared with all C4a HEV71 strains, a nucleotide substitution in all C4b HEV71 genome (A to C reversion at nt2503 in the VP1 coding region, which caused amino acid substitution of VP1-10: Gln to His) had reverted.
The data suggest that C4a HEV71 strains introduced into the Central Plain of China are responsible for the recent outbreaks. The relationships among HEV71 isolates determined from the combined sequence and epidemiological data reveal the underlying seasonal dynamics of HEV71 circulation. At least 5 HEV71 lineages circulated in the Central Plain of China from 2007 to 2009, and the Shandong and Anhui lineages were found to have passed through a genetic bottleneck during the low-transmission winter season.