- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 10, 2003

A top government scientist yesterday said there may be more people and animals infected with the monkeypox virus that has hit the Midwest, and health officials do not want it to spread to wild animals, where it would be much harder to stop.

“We don’t know how many animals or humans have been involved, and we don’t know the scope of the problem,” said Dr. Stephen M. Ostroff, deputy director for epidemiologic science at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Thirty-three persons in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, are suspected of having the smallpoxlike illness, Dr. Ostroff said yesterday. Only four of the 33 persons are confirmed to have it, Dr. Ostroff said, noting that he expects that number to rise as the rest of the group is tested. Later yesterday, it was reported that 37 persons were suspected of having the disease.

Monkeypox has mostly occurred in Africa and has never previously been diagnosed in the Western Hemisphere.

The virus is apparently being spread through contact with pet prairie dogs. Dr. Ostroff said all 33 persons had direct contact with sick pet prairie dogs and in one case, contact with a sick rabbit that had been near a prairie dog.

Monkeypox starts with fever, headache, chills and drenching sweat. Some people get a cough. In the next phase, the person develops a rash similar to smallpox.

Dr. Ostroff said people with open lesions should be isolated at home. The virus does not appear to be as contagious as smallpox, and there is no evidence yet that it has spread from person to person here, he said. But it has spread between people in Africa, so the CDC is advising that anyone who has come into contact with a human or animal suspected of the virus should be monitored for 21 days.

Authorities expressed concern that sick pets could somehow get loose in the wild and infect other animals, which would create a permanent, hard-to-control source of animals to spread the virus. They said people should not release sick pets into the wild.

“This is a substantial matter of concern at the moment,” said Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the department of preventive medicine and a professor of infectious diseases at the Vanderbilt Medical School. “If that happens, like West Nile virus, monkeypox would be here to stay.”

Officials are working hard to track down people who may have purchased infected prairie dogs. The illness is also linked to Gambian giant rats, which are imported as exotic pets.

Dr. Ostroff said people with sick prairie dogs, rabbits or Gambian giant rats should immediately call local health officials and call their vet before bringing in the sick animal.

In May, the prairie dogs were sold by a Milwaukee animal distributor to two pet shops in the Milwaukee area and during a pet “swap meet” in northern Wisconsin, the CDC said. The Milwaukee animal distributor obtained prairie dogs and a Gambian giant rat that was ill at the time from a northern Illinois animal distributor.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the death rate from monkeypox in Africa ranges as high as 10 percent.

The smallpox vaccine also protects against monkeypox. But smallpox has been eradicated worldwide and children born after 1980 have not been vaccinated and are likely to be more susceptible to monkeypox than the older population, the WHO said.

This story is based in part on wire service reports.



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