Death Toll Now At 117
From Unknown Malaysia Pig Virus
By Mike Cooper
ATLANTA (Reuters) - U.S. health researchers said Thursday the death toll has risen to 117 in Malaysia and Singapore from an epidemic largely caused by a newly detected virus transmitted by pigs.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the virus, similar to the Hendra virus that caused illness among people and horses in Australia in 1994 and 1995, is responsible for most of the encephalitic illnesses of 247 people in Malaysia and Singapore since September 1998.
In Malaysia, 236 people have been sickened and 116 of them have died, said Dr. Pierre Rollin of the CDC's Special Pathogens Branch. Most of the cases have involved men who have had contact with pigs.
In addition, there have been 11 cases of encephalitic and respiratory illnesses, one of them fatal, among abattoir workers in Singapore who handled pigs imported from Malaysia, he said.
CDC researchers said the previously unrecognized virus is similar, but not identical, to the Hendra virus that killed 15 racehorses and a human trainer in two different outbreaks in Queensland, Australia.
Researchers believe the Hendra virus, named after the Brisbane suburb where it was first identified in 1994, is carried by fruit bats, which do not become ill, but transmit the virus to humans, horses and other animals.
Experts are unsure of specific routes of transmission of the new virus, but it appears that people become infected by contact with sick swine.
``There is, as far as we know, no human-to-human transmission,'' Rollin said.
Malaysian authorities initially blamed the illnesses on an outbreak of Japanese encephalitis harbored in pigs. Encephalitis is an inflammation of the brain.
Researchers are trying to analyze samples from as many victims as possible, Rollin said.
``At the beginning of the outbreak, there were clearly some Japanese encephalitis cases, but it doesn't seem to be the case any more. All the recent ones seem to be due to this Hendra-like virus,'' he said.
The U.S. government has imposed no travel restrictions to Singapore or Malaysia as a result of the outbreak.
``The risk is mainly if you are in contact with pigs. If you go there for vacation or work-related travel, there is no risk at all,'' he said.
Researchers said the virus can cause fever and headache for as long as two weeks, followed by drowsiness and disorientation that can progress to a coma within a day or two. No cases of the illness have been reported among health workers caring for those who have been infected.
In some cases, illness in pigs occurred a week or two before illnesses in humans, the CDC said.
The CDC has six staff researchers in Malaysia and two in Singapore aiding local health authorities in the investigation, Rollin said.