One prairie dog may be linked to 18 monkeypox cases

Sunday, June 15, 2003

MADISON, Wis. -- A single prairie dog infected with monkeypox before health officials identified the virus may have been responsible for spreading monkeypox to half of the human cases in Wisconsin, a state health official said Saturday.

"A lot of people got exposed over time," said Robert Ehlenfeldt, acting state veterinarian. "That exposure would have happened before we knew what we were dealing with."

State epidemiologist Jeff Davis said Friday that the prairie dog had been linked to three confirmed human cases, six probable cases, nine suspected cases and a case of monkeypox in a rabbit, which infected one of the humans.

"Clearly a super-spreader if there ever was one," he said.

Ehlenfeldt took a more cautious approach Saturday, saying the prairie dog probably was not more contagious than other prairie dogs with the disease; it just had more contact with humans.

It had been handled by a distributor, a household and two veterinarian clinics before it died, he said.

By Friday, state health officials had confirmed a total of 12 human cases of the disease in this country: four each in Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois. Also, 71 possible cases had been reported -- 22 in Indiana, 30 in Wisconsin, 15 in Illinois, two in Ohio and one each in Missouri, Arizona and Kentucky.

No one has died from the disease in the United States, but at least 14 patients with symptoms have been hospitalized, including a child with encephalitis, or brain inflammation, according to the CDC.

The tests used to confirm whether someone has monkeypox take time, and the number of cases has changed as the results have come in.

Monkeypox, a west African disease never before seen in the Western Hemisphere, is related to smallpox but is not as lethal. It causes rashes, chills and fever.

Federal health officials said monkeypox-infected prairie dogs from one source -- Phil's Pocket Pets of Villa Park, Ill. -- may have been sold to numerous buyers in 15 states. They said a Gambian giant rat, a native of Africa, apparently infected a group of prairie dogs at the business.

Medical facilities have been receiving calls from concerned owners of prairie dogs, which have become increasingly popular pets. But people generally have remained calm, said Mark McLaughlin, spokesman for Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital in Milwaukee, which has treated seven patients with suspected monkeypox.

"I don't see this creating any sort of public panic and it shouldn't," McLaughlin said.

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