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Prairie Dogs, Pox Linked

June 09, 2003|From Associated Press

MADISON, Wis. — Tests have confirmed that four people in Wisconsin contracted the monkeypox virus after coming into close contact with pet prairie dogs, marking the first time the disease has been discovered in the Western Hemisphere, health officials said Sunday.

The findings at least partially confirm that monkeypox has caused an outbreak of rashes, fevers and chills in people in the upper Midwest since early May. Monkeypox is a viral infection that is related to smallpox.

Fourteen additional people in Wisconsin are suspected of suffering from the virus, said Dr. Seth Foldy, Milwaukee's health commissioner. At least 11 cases in Indiana and three in Illinois are also suspected.

The outbreak stems from a batch of prairie dogs that came from a pet distributor in suburban Chicago. It was there that the prairie dogs may have been infected by a Gambian rat -- a rodent indigenous to African countries.

The detection of monkeypox in the United States is highly unusual. The virus has been found mostly in west African nations -- and had never before been seen in the Western Hemisphere.

The human death rate in Africa has ranged from 1% to 10%, but Foldy said the virus may be less lethal in the U.S., because people are typically better nourished and medical technology is far more advanced.

Still, the disease could be almost impossible to control, and more people could become infected if it passes into other indigenous North American animals, Foldy said.

Four people, including one as an outpatient, have been treated at Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital in Milwaukee. One has been released and the remaining two were in satisfactory condition Sunday, a hospital spokesman said.

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