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Monkey pox outbreak prompts more vigilance

June 20th, 2003, 07:07 AM
By Karen Morrison
Saskatoon newsroom

Canada Customs will be taking a closer look at rodents bound for pet stores after a deadly African virus infected prairie dogs in the United States.

The pet prairie dogs were infected by Gambian giant pouch rats that were imported from Africa and had the smallpox-like disease, also known as monkey pox. The prairie dogs may have infected their human owners in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, now showing symptoms associated with the disease.

There are no reported cases of the virus in Canada in wild or pet rodent populations. There is also no indication the virus has reached beyond the pet population in the U.S., said Debbie Barr, senior staff veterinarian with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

"It's important Canadians really think about what they choose as pets and what they could be exposed to," Barr said.

Customs officials will use the Health of Animals Act when inspecting rodent imports and will turn away suspected cases. Prairie dogs are native to the central U.S. plains and are seen in small populations in the southern Canadian Prairies. They are almost twice the size of Richardson's ground squirrels, more commonly known as gophers.

Markus Czub of Health Canada's special pathogens programs in Winnipeg said his laboratory has not received suspected samples.

He said monkey pox is similar to the smallpox virus, although less serious in humans. It is hard to distinguish from chickenpox and requires a lab test for confirmation.

Czub said the fatality rate is five to 10 percent in humans.

"This is a serious disease."

It most likely enters the human body through small lesions in the skin or by being inhaled.

The virus has a broad range of hosts, including rabbits, prairie dogs and squirrels.

Czub said it entered North America once before, in monkeys imported from Africa more than 40 years ago.

Symptoms in humans include fever, pain, swollen lymph nodes and a rash of puss-filled blisters.