More clues link illness, rodent virus

June 06, 1993|By New York Times News Service

The preliminary link between a rodent virus and the mysterious flulike illness that has killed 11 people and sickened seven others in New Mexico and Arizona grew stronger yesterday, as researchers reported detecting antibody proteins directed against the virus in autopsy sample. The results suggest that the victims' immune systems had tried -- and failed -- to fend off the aggressive pathogen.

The new evidence adds to the initial clues, reported Friday night, that three of the people who survived the disease, called acute respiratory distress syndrome, showed sharply elevated amounts of the antibodies in their blood several days after they fell ill.

The virus detected in the patients is either the Hantaan virus, a microbe ordinarily associated with kidney disease and severe bleeding, or a related strain.

Researchers also announced yesterday that they had found the virus in wild rodents in three isolated counties in the northwest corner of New Mexico, said Scott Jones, emergency manager for the state's Department of Health.

"We really think we're on to something now," he said. "It's all

coming together." The people who contracted the respiratory ailment presumably were exposed to the virus by inhaling airborne particles of droppings from rats, field mice or some other type of rodent carrying the microbe.

But experts cautioned that the results were still preliminary, and some researchers who study the Hantaan virus and its relatives, the hanta viruses, said they remained skeptical.

"Nobody would be more surprised than me if this turns out to be a hanta virus," said Dr. Connie Schmaljohn, chief of molecular biology at the Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md. "We've isolated this virus all over the country from rodents, but it's never been associated with acute disease here," adding, "I still have my doubts."

In earlier studies, different strains of hanta viruses had been detected in rats and mice in Houston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New Orleans and other areas, said Dr. George W. Korch, chief of rapid diagnosis at the Fort Detrick center. "But to my knowledge, they've never been found before in the Southwest."

Nor has any type of hanta virus been associated with the most outstanding symptom seen in the latest epidemic, in which the lungs fill up with fluid, causing death by asphyxiation.

The Hantaan virus is named after the Han River in South Korea, where the microbe often causes outbreaks of Korean hemorrhagic fever, in which fever soars, the blood begins to leak out of the blood vessels, the kidneys fail, and death can follow if the disorder is not treated, said Dr. Gregory Gurri Glass, a specialist in infectious disease and Hantaan virus at the Johns Hopkins University.

Patients can be saved if they are treated with an anti-viral drug called ribavirin within four days of contracting the infection.

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