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Hold Those Rodents! Pox Spurs Import, Sales Ban

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ATLANTA _ Health officials banned the importation of six types of African rodents and prohibited the sale and shipment of prairie dogs Wednesday to curb the United States' first outbreak of monkeypox, which rose to 54 possible human cases.

Authorities also recommended smallpox vaccination for health care workers treating infected people or animals, investigators tracking the disease, and people who have had close contact with humans or animals infected with monkeypox.

The smallpox vaccine is believed to be 85 percent effective in preventing monkeypox, which is caused by a similar virus. Among those for whom vaccination is recommended are children, pregnant women and people with eczema, an inflammatory condition _ if they are in the at-risk categories due to possible monkeypox exposure.

Those groups were excluded from the government's smallpox vaccine campaign, launched in January to prepare for the possibility of bioterrorist attacks. That program was geared to health care workers, the military, police, firefighters and paramedics.

The monkeypox threat is a different situation, said Dr. David Fleming, deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"We're not dealing with a potential risk in the future, but the reality that these people have been exposed with this potentially fatal illness," he said. '`In that context, the risk-benefit changes.''

The smallpox vaccine can be given up to 14 days after exposure to monkeypox, he said.

Of the 54 possible monkeypox cases, 23 are in Indiana, 20 in Wisconsin, 10 in Illinois and one in New Jersey. The New Jersey case started in Indiana.

Nine of the cases have been confirmed as monkeypox, and about 10 patients have been hospitalized, Fleming said. No one has died.

Monkeypox _ a little-known virus from the rain forests of Africa _ showed up in the United States last month. Health officials believe that the disease came from Gambian giant rats sold as exotic pets.

The rats, from Africa, apparently infected prairie dogs while both species were housed together in Texas or after they were shipped to Illinois. The prairie dogs then were sold as pets by a Milwaukee distributor to dozens of people in the three affected Midwestern states and a few other states.

The Atlanta-based CDC has sent nine epidemiologists to Indiana and two to Texas to study the disease. It appears the virus has not been passed between people in the U.S. outbreak, but person-to-person transmission has occurred in Africa.

The CDC also issued a case definition of monkeypox: Symptoms include a rash that often turns into blisters that scab over, and headache, backache, sore throat, cough, swollen lymph nodes, shortness of breath and temperature above 99.3 degrees.

If people are exposed to infected rats, prairie dogs or certain squirrels, or to infected humans, and have a rash or more than one other symptom, they are classed as suspected cases.

Those with a rash and more than one other symptom are considered probable cases.

The animal embargo _ in effect indefinitely _ was announced by the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration and will be enforced primarily by the FDA.

The government order bans the importation of Gambian giant rats and five other rodents from Africa: tree squirrels, rope squirrels, brush-tailed porcupines, striped mice and dormice. All of the species were shipped together to Texas, and then the Gambian rat and prairie dogs were sent to a Chicago-area pet dealer.

Prairie dogs no longer can be sold or transported except to veterinarians or animal control officials for investigation of monkeypox. Many of the prairie dogs sold as pets have come from Texas.

Monkeypox joins several animal-related diseases from other parts of the world that have cropped up in the United States in recent years.

AIDS is believed to have crossed to humans from African chimpanzees. West Nile virus _ previously confined to Africa, western Asia and the Middle East _ is spread by mosquitoes and birds. SARS may have originated in wildlife markets in southern China.

The advent of these infections in the United States may be due to coincidence, heightened public health surveillance or increased global travel, Fleming said.

All of these outbreaks are, in essence, related to that globalization,'' he said.And in that context, we should expect that these would become more, rather than less, frequent.''

SARS has infected over 8,400 people and killed 789 worldwide. Fleming said monkeypox was unlikely to cause that much damage because it isn't as easily spread between people and patients tend to be sicker, meaning they are less likely to mingle with others.

David Wahlberg writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. E-mail:

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