August 8, 2000
Arenavirus Infection Linked To Deaths In California
SACRAMENTO -- Three deaths in
California during the past 14 months have been linked to an arenavirus, a rare virus never
before acquired by humans in North America, State Health Director Diana M. Bontá, R.N.,
Dr.P.H., has announced.
The discovery followed an extensive investigation by the California Department of Health
Services (DHS) and the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) into the unexplained
deaths of a 52-year-old female who died in June 1999 in Riverside County, a 14-year-old
female who died in April 2000 in Alameda County and a 30-year-old woman who died in June
2000 in Orange County. UTMB has one of the few laboratories in the country equipped to
test for arenaviruses.
In the 14-year-old patient, arenavirus has been confirmed and in the two others, the virus
is highly suspected based on initial laboratory tests. Further testing is under way. The
three individuals were each hospitalized with fever and respiratory distress. Two of them
also had severe liver disease and bleeding consistent with viral hemorrhagic fever.
Like hantavirus, which causes a rare, but often fatal respiratory disease, arenaviruses
are believed to be transmitted to humans through inhalation of dust contaminated with the
urine, feces or saliva of infected rodents. Human infection with arenavirus is also likely
to be very uncommon. Arenavirus infection has been documented in rodents in Southern
California in recent years.
"Viral hemorrhagic fever associated with arenaviruses has never been documented in
the United States except among overseas travelers and laboratory personnel exposed
accidentally while doing research," Bontá explained.
DHS was prompted to send specimens to UTMB because of clinical and autopsy findings
suggestive of viral hemorrhagic fever and a history of rodent contact in the Riverside
County patient. The virus was detected in all three patients through testing for virus
genes. In addition, virus isolation was used to confirm infection in the 14-year-old.
There is no evidence that these cases are related.
In parts of Africa and South America, several arenaviruses are known which cause mild to
severe infection characterized by fever, headache and occasionally severe bleeding or
nervous system problems. Lassa fever and the South American viral hemorrhagic fevers are
examples of human illnesses caused by such arenaviruses.
The antiviral drug ribavirin has been successfully used in the treatment of other
arenavirus infections. Studies are underway to learn more about this virus and medicines
that may be effective.
Individuals can protect themselves from diseases carried by rodents by taking some
relatively simple precautions both in the home and while outdoors:
Do not touch or feed wild rodents
or any other wild animals.
Properly dispose of trash and
clutter; move woodpiles away from residences.
Prevent rodents from entering
residences by blocking holes; control rodents with spring-loaded (snap) traps.
Store food and garbage in rodent-proof containers; pet food should not be left outside.
Avoid creating dust when cleaning
buildings with signs of rodent infestation. Wet the area thoroughly with a disinfectant
like bleach and use gloves to clean up. Contact local public health officials for
recommendations about safely cleaning rodent-infested areas.
Cabins and buildings that haven't
been occupied for some time should be aired out. If possible, buildings should not be used
if there are signs of rodent infestation until properly cleaned.
When sleeping outdoors, avoid
campsites near rodent droppings, burrows or nests.
Arenavirus Q&A from the
California Department of Health Services available by clicking here.
Source: California Department of Health Services
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