Mystery illness takes a day off in N.M. Cause still sought as death toll rises

June 01, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- New Mexico authorities said yesterday that they have observed no new cases in the last 24 hours of the mystery illness that has brought fear to the Four Corners area of northern Arizona and New Mexico.

But the death toll from the flulike disease has risen to 11 as researchers have ferreted out an earlier case that matches criteria established for the disorder, now known as unexplained respiratory distress syndrome, or URDS.

Researchers from New Mexico and the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta are still mystified about the cause of URDS, having ruled out the most common infectious agents, but the mostly likely explanation is a previously undiscovered virus.

Intriguingly, most of the victims have been young, apparently healthy people ages 13 to 32. Most infectious agents, in contrast, strike infants and the old and infirm.

The only common factor identified so far is that most of the victims have been Navajos and all of the victims have lived on or near the 24,000-square-mile reservation here, the country's largest.

Of the 18 definite cases, 12 are American Indian, five are white and one is Latino. Eight are female and 10 are male. Fourteen cases have been identified in New Mexico and four in Arizona.

The only bright spot, said Dr. Frederick Koster of University Hospital here, is that "the survival rate is decent if people get to the hospital early enough."

So far, researchers know definitely that URDS is not linked to AIDS, sexual transmission or any of the most common bacteria and fungi. They have also ruled out toxins such as anthrax and rare organisms such as Legionella pneumophila, which caused an outbreak of Legionnaires' disease in 1976 and 1977.

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