Rodent virus may cause Navajo illness Avoid droppings, scientists warn

June 05, 1993|By Thomas H. Maugh II | Thomas H. Maugh II,Los Angeles Times

The mystery illness that has stricken the Four Corners area of New Mexico and Arizona may be caused by a virus carried by rodents and transmitted in rodent droppings and urine, authorities said yesterday.

Preliminary tests from three of the 18 victims of the mystery disease, which has killed 11 young and apparently healthy people, showed the presence of hantavirus, a virus that more often causes kidney damage rather than the respiratory distress syndrome seen in victims in the region.

The preliminary findings by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have not yet been confirmed, cautioned Dr. Gary Simpson of the New Mexico Department of Health. "We realize we may be in error, but we are choosing to release the preliminary indications because there may in fact be treatment implications," Dr. Simpson said. "There are anti-viral drugs that have shown activity against this class of viruses."

There have been no new cases of the disease reported since last Saturday, and authorities yesterday reduced the death toll from the previously announced 13 to 11. Two of the suspected victims, they said, actually died of unrelated pneumonia. That announcement also reduced the number of confirmed cases to 18. About two-thirds of the victims have been American Indians; all but one had links to the Four Corners region.

Outbreaks of disease caused by hantavirus, which is also called hantaan virus, previously occurred among U.S. troops in the Korean War and are now most commonly seen among people who work in forests or fields near forests. Outbreaks have also occurred in urban areas, such as Osaka, Japan, with large

populations of rodents.

Some public health authorities in this country have warned that the disease could become more common in cities if rat abatement programs are reduced by budgetary cutbacks.

Animals themselves do not become sick from the virus. It is also not spread by person-to-person contact, a finding that brings comfort to investigators and others who have come into contact with victims. If the epidemic has been the result of hantavirus infections, experts said, it is unlikely that the disease will be spread outside the region, and there is also little danger to tourists.

If the epidemic was caused by hantavirus, Dr. Simpson said, it may represent a new form of the virus, since the symptoms are substantially different from those previously known to be caused by it.

New Mexico and Arizona health authorities cautioned residents to avoid cleaning up rodent burrows or nests and sweeping houses when rodent droppings are present, as well as to stay away from rodents. Authorities will develop new guidelines for safely disposing of the droppings.

Authorities also requested that Navajo medicine men halt cleansing ceremonies in regions where victims resided for fear that the sweeping that is an integral part of the ceremonies would stir up dust containing rodent droppings and thereby lead to further spread of the disease.

The disease, which first came to public attention last week, is now known as unexplained respiratory distress syndrome or URDS, although some call it Four Corners disease. Victims first develop a fever, muscle aches and either coughing, headache or conjunctivitis (reddening of the eyes). Fluids build up in the lungs, suffocating patients.

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