The U.S. government has barred the importation of rodents from Africa because of an outbreak of at least nine human cases of monkeypox, an illness never before been seen in the Western Hemisphere. Health officials plan to use smallpox vaccine to prevent the disease from spreading.
It was only last week when American health experts recognized that at least 13 people in the midwestern U.S. states of Wisconsin and Illinois had become sick after being exposed to prairie dogs. Now, at least 15 states are under investigation and there are dozens of suspected human cases.
The rare virus, normally found only in African rainforests, may have come to the United States when a distributor imported prairie dogs along with a Gambian giant rat, a species known to be susceptible to monkeypox. Health officials say the prairie dogs may have, in turn, infected gerbils, hamsters and other animals sold as pets.
They say monkeypox is a virus similar to smallpox but less deadly and harder to transmit.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta is recommending that people who have had close contact with individuals or animals confirmed to have monkeypox should receive a smallpox vaccination.
Dr. David Fleming, the CDC's deputy director for Public Health and Science, says that's because the two illnesses are related. "Smallpox vaccination, because monkeypox is related to smallpox, is an effective way to prevent monkeypox from occurring in people," he said. "Studies have shown smallpox vaccination is about 85 percent effective in preventing monkeypox."
Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson has placed an embargo on the importation of all rodents from Africa and has banned the sale or distribution within the United States of prairie dogs and six other species.
The CDC has opened an emergency operations center to deal with monkeypox. Health officials say planning for the possibility of bioterrorism helped them prepare for this unusual outbreak.