13th death linked to illness in Navajos' region shamans to be called in

June 03, 1993|By Dallas Morning News

SANTE FE, N.M. — SANTA FE, N.M. -- A 13th death has been linked to a quick-acting, still unexplained illness in the Navajo Reservation area.

There have been no deaths reported since Saturday noon; the 13th death occurred in early May but was tied to the disease only Tuesday night. But one state health official says it is too early to declare that the danger has passed.

"Epidemics, particularly if they're related to infectious agents, sometimes tend to progress in waves depending on what the incubation period is of that infectious agent," Dr. Gary L. Simpson, medical director of the infectious diseases division of the New Mexico Department of Health, said yesterday.

"So, just because we've gone a few days without new cases of severe illness that seem to be characteristic of this syndrome doesn't necessarily mean that we've turned any particular corner or that we're particularly out of the woods," Dr. Simpson said.

Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah said his people would call upon medicine men to assist the tribe. "Western medicine has its limitations," Mr. Zah said at a news conference yesterday. "We're going to call on some Navajo medicine people to help us analyze the situation and to see if there are other avenues that are available to us as a nation so that we can define what it is that is causing these deaths."

Roughly three to four dozen shamans live on the reservation in New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, he said. He gave no specifics on what they will do; it is taboo in Navajo culture to discuss their work. Traditionally, however, medicine men are tribal elders who perform ceremonies, such as making sand paintings, to cleanse and heal the spirit. Navajos believe these practices lead to physical recovery.

The disease has not yet been linked to a single cause. Investigators are turning to clinical, laboratory, environmental and other testing to discover a common denominator among the 20 confirmed cases of what is being called "adult respiratory stress syndrome." Eight of the deaths have been in New Mexico, and five have been in Arizona.

Health authorities said their best hunch is that it is transmitted by a virus because tissue samples taken from patients show what resembles other viruses.

C. Mack Sewell, the state epidemiologist, said that preliminary testing leans away from environmental causes. "Some of the laboratory results so far suggest some kind of environmental toxin is probably not responsible for this cluster," he said.

The cases have been concentrated in the western section of New Mexico, near the Navajo Nation, which also covers parts of Arizona, Colorado and Utah.

An radio talk show broadcast on KTNN-AM in Window Rock yesterday featured Mr. Zah, a medicine man and officials with the Indian Health Service, who told listeners about the illness, said KTNN news director Selena Manychildren. The medicine man talked about how the Navajo people should unite in prayer over the illness.

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