Posted on Fri, Jun. 13, 2003 Phila. Inquirer
Tests have begun in Wisconsin. It would be the first known person-to-person transmission in the U.S.
By Todd Richmond
MADISON, Wis. - A Wisconsin nurse may have contracted monkeypox from a patient in what would be the first known case of the disease spreading from one person to another in the United States, officials said yesterday.
Wisconsin state epidemiologist Jeff Davis said health officials were testing tissue specimens to confirm whether the unidentified health-care worker was infected with the exotic African virus.
Until now, health officials investigating the weeklong outbreak in the United States had said that the virus was being spread by pet prairie dogs. But the disease can also be transmitted from one person to another, something that has happened in Africa.
"In this case there was no animal exposure," Davis said of the health-care worker. "The only contact was with a human."
Davis would not release other details, but Patrice M. Skonieczny, infection-control coordinator at St. Francis Hospital in Milwaukee, said the sick worker was a nurse at the hospital.
Skonieczny said the nurse cared for a Milwaukee pet distributor who was being treated for a possible case of monkeypox. The nurse wore a mask, gloves and a gown when treating the patient, Skonieczny said.
Last weekend, several days after caring for the patient, the nurse developed flulike symptoms and a rash, but they "kind of faded away in a couple of days," Skonieczny said. The nurse has stayed home since developing the symptoms, she added.
Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said they were looking into the report of human-to-human transmission.
"The issue right now is it's still early - we have not completed testing," CDC spokesman Llelwyn Grant said.
Herb Bostrom, director of the state Bureau of Communicable Diseases, suggested that the finding was not necessarily reason for alarm.
Monkeypox "spreads much more readily from animals to humans than it does from human to human," Bostrom said. "You're not going to get it from somebody sitting on the bus or walking down the hall."
As of yesterday, U.S. health officials had confirmed a total of 12 human cases of the disease: four each in Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois. Also, 54 possible cases had been reported - 25 in Indiana, 17 in Wisconsin, 11 in Illinois, and one in New Jersey.
No one has died from the disease in the United States.
Davis said the animals appeared to be infecting people through bites, or when people touch discharges from the prairie dogs and then rub their eyes or noses.
Monkeypox, a disease never before seen in the Western Hemisphere, is related to smallpox but is not as lethal. It causes pus-filled blisters, rashes, chills and fever.
Federal health officials have traced the outbreak to prairie dogs distributed by Phil's Pocket Pets of Villa Park, Ill. The prairie dogs were apparently infected at the business by a Gambian giant rat, officials said.