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CDC Investigates New Virus Outbreak in the U.S. - 2003-06-09

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control is investigating the outbreak of a virus similar to small pox. It is believed to be monkeypox, a disease that is new to the United States. Nineteen people in the Midwestern states of Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana are suspected of having the disease. Carol Pearson reports the virus may be linked to pet prairie dogs.

Pet shop owner Eileen Whitmarsh came down with symptoms that baffled her doctor.

“It started with chills and a high fever and then it progressed from there.”

Eileen Whitmarsh also developed blisters and swollen lymph nodes. Physicians trace her symptoms to direct contact with an animal infected with monkeypox.

Monkeypox is related to smallpox, but it’s not as deadly. It was first isolated in monkeys in central and western Africa.

Most people who get it live in remote villages close to the rainforest and have frequent contact with monkeys. Rodents and rabbits are also susceptible to the disease.

The Centers for Disease Control say in the United States the virus may have been transmitted to people by prairie dogs being sold as pets.

For now, most Americans are not thought to be in danger of contracting monkeypox, according to epidemiologists like Dr. Douglas Passaro.

“The concern for monkeypox among people among people who have no exposure to rodents or exotic pets and who are not close contacts with those sorts of persons really have almost nothing to worry about.”

Still, a number of Midwestern states have banned the sale of prairie dogs. Doctors want to contain the disease before it spreads to wild rabbits and other animals native to the United States.

The apparent discovery of monkeypox in the United States comes just as the global SARS epidemic seems to have peaked.

SARS is said to have first infected people who had close contact with infected civets, cat-like creatures considered a delicacy in southern China, where SARS first appeared.

Some researchers point out that about half of the viruses that affect humans have come from animals. And that all but a handful of new diseases originated in animals.

Does this mean that we are seeing more diseases jump species?

Some researchers think it does, but Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads research on infectious diseases at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, suggests that scientists are simply better equipped to detect diseases moving across the species barrier.

“Our technologies which are able to match viruses that are seen in animals and do molecular comparisons with those that are seen in humans, has given us the opportunity to be able to document what we call the jumping of species. And the technologies we had 100 years ago did not allow that.”

Dr. Fauci says viruses jump species in two ways: people have a new exposure to a virus that has the ability to jump species, or as with SARS, people have a long exposure to a virus that affects another animal, but then the virus mutates to one that can infect humans.