ALBUQUERQUE — State and federal health officials scrambled Friday to identify the cause of a mysterious flu-like illness that so far has killed nine people and may have afflicted 16 others.
The disease, which is so virulent it can kill its victims within 24 hours of the onset of symptoms, primarily has struck young, healthy people living on or near the Navajo Reservation in northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona, said C. Mack Sewell, the state epidemiologist.
A handful of cases were reported in March and April, with the rest occurring within the past month, he said. The most recent victim, a 19-year-old man, died Thursday.
Sewell said his office has called in field investigators from the federal Centers for Disease Control to help with interviewing victims. He also has sent blood samples to the CDC laboratories for analysis.
Tests so far have been negative for both influenza and pneumonic plague, a disease that occurs with some frequency in the Southwest, Sewell said. It's not even known whether the illness is caused by bacteria or a virus.
At a news conference Friday morning in Santa Fe, deputy state epidemiologist Ron Voorhees was asked whether the outbreak represents the appearance of a previously unidentified disease.
"I have to tell you, the longer that we go and the more diagnostic avenues we exhaust, the more likely that it's something we've never seen before," he said.
The disease resembles the flu in its early stages, Sewell said, "then some of these patients develop something called ARDS--acute respiratory distress syndrome--and some die shortly after that."
Doctors treating disease victims have placed them on ventilators and administered antibiotics, with mixed success, Sewell said.