June 12, 2003
The struggle to contain the monkeypox outbreak in the Midwest widened dramatically Tuesday as investigators fanned out across four more states to track down potentially infected pet prairie dogs.
The urgency of the hunt was heightened by the announcement that an 11-year-old New Jersey boy might have been infected with the virus during a visit to the Midwest last month.
At least 53 illnesses are under investigation in the outbreak, which was reported Saturday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, five have been confirmed in CDC lab tests as monkeypox, a close but less-lethal relative of the smallpox family. At least seven people have been hospitalized, but no one has died.
In the latest case, New Jersey health officials say the boy came into contact with two infected prairie dogs owned by family friends. The boy developed a high fever, fatigue and blisters on his head, arms and upper body. He received medical care but was not hospitalized and is recovering at home.
Until Tuesday, the monkeypox outbreak had been limited to Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. The hunt for infected people and pets expanded to Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio and South Carolina.
Health and agriculture investigators knocked on doors and visited pet shops and distributors, looking for prairie dogs, rats and other animals sold since April 15 by Phil's Pocket Pets of Villa Park, a suburb of Chicago. The animals are thought to have been exposed to monkeypox through contact with a sick Gambian giant rat that had been imported from Africa.
''That's priority No. 1: identifying those people who purchased prairie dogs from this dealer,'' said Jeff Squibb, spokesman for Illinois' Department of Agriculture.
The effort to find the animals has been complicated because some were moved from dealer to dealer, and some were sold at ''swap meets,'' gatherings where animals are bought or traded and records are not kept.
Illinois officials said 200 prairie dogs had been sent to Pocket Pets from Texas, and of those, 70 had been killed.
Monkeypox virus, until now, has not been seen outside Africa. It is related to smallpox, though it is not as contagious or severe; it kills 1% to 10% of victims in African outbreaks. By comparison, smallpox kills about 30%.
The U.S. cases have resulted from contact with infected animals, but the disease
has been known to spread human-to-human in Africa.