Rodents possible carriers of killer virus

The mystery viral haemorrhagic fever that has killed four people in South Africa has been provisionally identified as an arenavirus, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and the Department of Health said yesterday.

The mystery viral haemorrhagic fever that has killed four people in South Africa has been provisionally identified as an arenavirus, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) and the Department of Health said yesterday.

"The causative agent of the disease. may be a rodent-borne arenavirus related to the Lassa fever virus of West Africa," NICD's Dr Lucille Blumberg said in Johannesburg yesterday.

She said tests done by the NICD and the Centres for Disease Control in Atlanta, US, indicated that the disease seemed to be a kind of arenavirus.

Arenaviruses cause chronic infections in a kind of wild mouse who excrete the virus in their urine, which can then contaminate human food or house dust.

Viruses similar to the Lassa fever virus have been found in rodents in Africa, but other than in West Africa, have not been found to cause diseases in humans.

Blumberg said there was no indication that arenaviruses which could cause disease in humans were present in South African rodents. She said further tests still needed to be done.

The NICD's Robert Swanepoel said there were viruses of this family in southern Africa but that this could be an undiscovered kind.

"Not every country has been thoroughly searched," he said.

Swanepoel said the kind of rodents who carried the virus were not generally found in urban areas.

Head of the NICD's special pathogens unit, Dr Janusz T Paweska, said the arenavirus diagnosis came about after a number of tests.

Biopsies were conducted on the last two victims. A blood sample obtained in Zambia from the first victim also confirmed test results.

Swanepoel said doctors were now waiting for the virus to grow in cell culture to conduct further tests to identify what strain it was.

Gauteng health MEC Brian Hlongwa said the first victim, Cecilia van Deventer, 36, was airlifted from rural Zambia to the Morningside Medi Clinic in Sandton on September 12. She died two days later. She was not tested for viral haemorrhagic fever.

Three more people who had been in contact with Van Deventer died within a few weeks after she had been admitted. - Sapa.

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