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Monkeypox Sickens 29 People in USA

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Health officials across the Midwest are trying to contain an outbreak of a rare virus, a cousin of smallpox that has spread from pet prairie dogs to people in three states.

Monkeypox, which has never been detected in the Western Hemisphere, is thought to have been carried into the USA by exotic animals. The infected prairie dogs have been traced to a Milwaukee animal distributor who got them, along with a Gambian giant rat that was sick at the time of purchase, from a northern Illinois animal dealer. Officials say it is possible the Gambian rat was the source of the virus.

Wisconsin state epidemiologist Jeffrey Davis said Sunday that officials want to make sure the infected animals, sold as pets through pet stores and a ''swap meet,'' a kind of flea market, have not spread the virus to other people or pets. Humans, monkeys, rodents and rabbits are most susceptible, he said.

Eighteen people in Wisconsin and at least 10 in Indiana and one in Illinois have fallen ill. None has died, and the illnesses do not appear to be life-threatening, Davis says, though two people remain hospitalized in Wisconsin.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirmed Sunday that the virus is monkeypox, which occurs sporadically in rainforest regions of West and Central Africa. It causes fever, cough, swollen lymph nodes and lesions. Though monkeypox is related to smallpox and smallpox vaccination also protects against it, monkeypox is not as contagious or as deadly as smallpox, experts say.

The fatality rate from monkeypox is 1% to as high as 10% in young children.

Until all the animals are tracked down, said Stephen Ostroff of the CDC, ''the risk is out there for individuals that may have been in contact with these prairie dogs.''

The CDC is asking doctors and veterinarians to be on the alert ''to reduce the potential of additional exposure, and to make people aware of the diagnosis, so there isn't confusion.'' He said that in at least one case the disease was mistaken for chickenpox.

Health officials don't know where the prairie dogs have been sent, in part because no documentation of their movement is required. Pet stores keep records of sales, but some were sold at swap meets, and it is possible that they have been shipped ''far and wide,'' Ostroff said.

David Crawford of Rocky Mountain Animal Defense, an animal welfare group that opposes the selling of prairie dogs, said 10,000 were taken from the wild in Texas last year and sold as pets, mainly in Japan.

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