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Vaccines considered in monkeypox scare

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The number of people in the Midwest possibly infected with monkeypox, a close relative of smallpox, jumped Monday to at least 34. Health officials are considering whether to recommend smallpox vaccination for people who may have been exposed to infected prairie dogs and other exotic pets.

Monkeypox is not as severe or as contagious as smallpox, but experts admit they don't know how it would behave if it spread widely here because no one has seen a case in the USA until now.

Fearing that the rare African virus could spread to wild animal populations, health and agriculture officials in the three affected states -- Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois -- are tracking down prairie dogs, Gambian giant rats and other exotic animals that may be infected. They are urging pet owners to notify health officials if they have sick animals.

The outbreak came to light after several people involved in the sale or purchase of prairie dogs from a Milwaukee animal distributor fell ill. The Wisconsin dealer bought the prairie dogs and a Gambian giant rat, which was sick at the time of sale, from an Illinois distributor in mid-April. Since then, the animals have been sold at pet stores and at ''swap meets,'' gatherings where animals are traded and sold.

''At this point, we don't know how many animals are involved, and we don't know the scope of the problem in terms of affected areas,'' said Stephen Ostroff of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He said six people are hospitalized with symptoms that include fever, pustular rash and cough; none is gravely ill. All those affected had direct contact with sick prairie dogs or, in one case, a sick rabbit that had been exposed to an ill prairie dog.

The worry now, said infectious disease specialist Kurt Reed of the Marshfield (Wis.) Clinic, is keeping the virus from spreading to squirrels, mice or other local animals. ''Everyone hopes this is a one-shot deal for the history books, but look what happened with West Nile virus.'' West Nile emerged in 1999 in New York City and has spread nationwide and into Canada.

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