- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 1, 2004

MILWAUKEE (AP) — A virus recently discovered in Japan is suspected in two “crib deaths” in Wisconsin, raising questions about how many of these mysterious deaths might be caused by germs.

The cases mark the first time that the virus has been identified in the United States. Whether it killed the babies is not clear, but both were sick before they died and had signs of disease in their lungs.

Sudden infant death syndrome — also called “crib death” for the devastating way it usually is discovered — is a catchall term for unexplained deaths in children less than a year old. About 2,200 occur each year in the United States, mostly involving babies who are between 2 and 4 months old.

Brain or breathing abnormalities, genetic mutations and birth defects are suspected causes. The risk rises if babies live with smokers, are put to sleep on their stomachs, or are bundled in too many clothes or covers.

Infections also have long been implicated. However, many SIDS victims are not tested for viruses that might be the culprit.

The Wisconsin cases should prompt research into whether SIDS often is caused by the newly discovered type of virus, said Dr. Mark Pallansch, who identified it at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after a Milwaukee virologist detected it.

“That is the question to be asked,” he said.

Separately, a study in today’s New England Journal of Medicine suggests that a protein long linked to stillbirths and some birth defects may play a role in SIDS. Researchers from England and Scotland found that pregnant women who had high amounts of the protein in their blood were nearly three times more likely to have a baby die of SIDS than were women with lower amounts.

It has long been known that many SIDS victims have high amounts of immune-system cells and substances, indicating that they were fighting germs.

Germs that cause mild illness in adults can be fatal to infants. Sometimes they kill indirectly, by magnifying other dangers, said Dr. Marian Willinger, who oversees SIDS research for the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Officials are trying to figure out how the newly recognized virus, human parechovirus-3, or HPEV-3, fits in. Japanese scientists reported its discovery earlier this year after studying a 1-year-old girl who developed a high fever, diarrhea and temporary paralysis in 1999.

The virus’s origin is a mystery. How the Wisconsin babies became infected is another.

The first was a 4-week-old Appleton girl who died last September, after she and her family had colds. Her mother is a travel agent, but she worked from home during the two previous months and had no face-to-face contact with clients who went to Asia.

The second case occurred two weeks later, 30 miles away, in a 4-month-old Fond du Lac girl who also had cold symptoms. Her father recently had been to China and Australia, but her family had no known contact with the other victim’s family.

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