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Nineteen people in the Midwest have been infected with a smallpox-like virus from pet prairie dogs that got the illness from exotic rats, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Saturday.
Preliminary lab tests suggest the virus is monkeypox, CDC spokeswoman K.D. Hoskins said. If that finding is confirmed by more tests, it would mark the first human cases of monkeypox in the Western Hemisphere.
Monkeypox is primarily found in the rain forests of Central and West Africa, Hoskins said. Like smallpox, it causes fatigue and fever. After several days, a rash breaks out, turning to blisters that form scabs. Monkeypox is rarely fatal.
At least four of the 19 patients were hospitalized, and all are recovering, Hoskins said. Some received antiviral drugs. Seventeen of the patients are from Wisconsin, one is from Illinois and one is from Indiana. They contracted the disease beginning in early May.
The Atlanta-based CDC held a rare weekend news conference to alert the public, particularly prairie dog owners in the Midwest, Hoskins said.
A pet dealer in Milwaukee kept Gambian giant rats together with prairie dogs, Hoskins said. The dealer got the animals from a distributor in Illinois and sold the prairie dogs at pet stores and pet swap meets in the Midwest.
It is not known how the rats acquired the virus. It appears that all the patients were infected from the prairie dogs, though officials have not ruled out person-to-person transmission.
Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution