Tests may have identified source of unknown disease in Africa – UN agency

13 October 2008 – Preliminary tests indicate that a mystery disease in Zambia and South Africa that has killed three people in the past month is caused by a virus from the family that includes Lassa fever, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) announced today, as reports emerged that a fourth case of the illness has been confirmed.

Analysis is continuing at laboratories in South Africa and the United States to learn more about the virus, believed to be from the Arenaviridae family, according to a news update released by WHO.

Investigations began after an office employee at a safari tour company in Zambia died on 14 September in a hospital in Johannesburg, South Africa, two days after undergoing a medical evacuation from Zambia.

A paramedic who cared for that patient was later admitted to hospital in Johannesburg and died on 2 October, and a nurse who was also involved in the care of the first patient died on 5 October.

The three patients experienced fever, headaches, diarrhoea and myalgia that developed into rash and hepatic dysfunction, followed by rapid deterioration and death, WHO reported.

It said today that a fourth case has now been confirmed, with a nurse who had close contact with one of the earlier cases becoming ill and being admitted to hospital in South Africa.

WHO is working with its partners in the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network to help the health ministries in South Africa and Zambia investigate the outbreak, conduct laboratory diagnosis and become involved in case monitoring and the follow-up with anyone who may have been in contact with sufferers of the disease.

On Friday the UN agency said there was no indication yet of any need to restrict travel to or from Zambia or South Africa and no special measures required for passengers arriving from these countries.

At least 121 known contacts of the fatal cases are being traced in South Africa and 23 in Zambia.

The Arenaviridae family contains a wide range of viruses, including that which causes Lassa fever, an acute viral haemorrhagic illness that occurs widely across West Africa. Humans become infected from contact with the urine or faeces of rodents.

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
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