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Wis. Officials Search for Prairie Dogs

June 10, 2003

WAUSAU, Wis. (AP) _ State officials are on the hunt for 30 prairie dogs shipped to Wisconsin that they believe brought along the smallpox-related monkeypox virus, which infected a couple and their daughter.

``They said we can’t leave until the scabs fall off the sores,″ said Tammy Kautzer, 28, who is quarantined in her house along with her husband and child. ``I only have a few more scabs to fall off. My daughter’s are gone.″

Health officials were working to contain the spread of the monkeypox virus, which is related to smallpox and apparently never before found in the Western Hemisphere.

Two-thirds of the animals had been accounted for, and the state issued two more quarantines barring people from moving mammals on their property to help stem the spread of the disease.

Health officials also issued an emergency order banning the sale, importation and display of prairie dogs.

In all, 33 cases of monkeypox are either suspected or have been confirmed in three Midwest states. In Wisconsin, 16 cases are suspected and three were confirmed; health officials have not identified who the confirmed cases are.

Thirteen cases are suspected in Indiana. And in Illinois, there are four suspected and one confirmed case.

Eileen Whitmarsh, who fell ill after handling an infected prairie dog at her pet store, said at first one of the animals just seemed fatigued. But then the symptoms spread to another prairie dog in the store.

``Nobody knew. Everybody thought, ’Oh, just a prairie dog not feeling well,‴ Whitmarsh said.

Kautzer said she bought two prairie dogs in Wausau for $95 apiece. Two days later, the eyes of one crusted over and swelled up.

``I figured it had a cold,″ she said Monday in a telephone interview from her home. By then, she said, the animal had bitten her daughter on the finger.

Kautzer eventually took the prairie dog to a veterinarian, who diagnosed a swollen lymph node. Then her daughter began running a 103-degree fever _ and the animal died a week later.

``I didn’t think nothing of it,″ Kautzer said.

Dr. Mark Wegner, chief of Wisconsin’s communicable disease section, said of those who have fallen sick, four have been hospitalized but none are seriously ill.

Wegner said most complained of fever, headache and some respiratory symptoms to go along with a rash featuring skin lesions that resemble chicken pox. Wegner said the numbers are expected to increase as the state continues investigating the virus.

``We of course want people to maintain a level of concern so we continue to receive reports of any possible cases, but there’s no need for widespread concern,″ he said.

Bob Teclaw, an epidemiologist with the Indiana Department of Health, said the suspected Indiana cases were not confined to a particular area of the state or age group and included men, women and possibly one child.

Investigators say a shipment of prairie dogs likely was infected with the virus by a giant Gambian rat, which is indigenous to Africa, at a Chicago-area pet distributor, Phil’s Pocket Pets.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention could not say how many people or animals may have come in contact with the virus.

Symptoms include fever, chills, muscle aches, coughs, swollen glands and rashes within two weeks of being in contact with the animal. The disease has a low potential for transmission between humans and is seldom fatal.


On the Net:

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:


Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection: http://datcp.state.wi.us/index.jsp

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