PRAIRIE DOGS THE CAUSE OF MONKEYPOX?
by Whit Gibbons
July 28, 2003
years ago scientists discovered a disease in laboratory monkeys that they
called "monkeypox." The virus that caused the disease is believed
to have originated in African rodents, in particular a squirrel or rat.
More than thirty years ago, monkeypox was determined to be the cause of
a human illness in isolated regions of Africa. The virus was potentially
lethal. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention),
as many as 10% of the people contracting monkeypox in Africa died from
the disease. In early summer 2003, monkeypox found its way into the human
population of the United States. Prairie dogs have been identified as
the probable carrier of the monkeypox virus.
of monkeypox have been likened to a mild case of smallpox (from which
30% of the victims died), with visible lesions that can last more than
three weeks. Other symptoms of monkeypox include fever, swollen lymph
nodes, and general muscle aches and pains. After about four weeks the
lesions disappear. The long-term effects of monkeypox on surviving patients
treated in the United States are unknown because of the emerging nature
of the problem. The spread of the disease is believed to be through direct
contact with infected animals, people with the disease, and contaminated
clothes or bedding. Monkeypox is so rare that no vaccine has been produced.
did prairie dogs get involved in spreading a deadly virus to humans and
what should be done about it? From a health care perspective, one decision
about what to do about avoiding monkeypox seems rather straightforward.
Get rid of your pet monkeys, African squirrels, and American prairie dogs.
But how silly is that suggestion, considering we live in a country where
you can find avid and devoted owners of pet skunks, or pit vipers, or
Bengal tigers? For that matter, some people even keep Chihuahuas as pets,
so controlling the pet urge can be tough.
prairie dogs might be instructive. These are communal animals of the western
plains that live in underground burrows. Watching a family of prairie
dogs around their burrows is great sport, and with state and national
parks offering them protection, such opportunities abound. Yet only half
a century ago, probably as many prairie dogs were shot at for sport as
were watched for fun. And because many ranchers viewed them as major pests,
prairie dogs were the target of countless campaigns to eradicate them
from the countryside. But they are cute furry, large-eyed creatures that
get to be a little over a foot long, so people who have not tried to eliminate
them in one way or another have tried to make pets out of them.
prairie dogs are colonial animals, and prairie dog towns consisting of
dozens or hundreds of burrows may cover several hundred acres. One record-size
prairie dog metropolis reported in the early days of western settlement
was more than 200 miles long and half as wide. As social animals, prairie
dogs are readily susceptible to transmittable diseases. One disease they
can carry that is serious, for humans as well as prairie dogs, is plague,
which is transmitted by fleas. Like other rodents, prairie dogs have fleas.
Although a bacterium causes plague and an airborne virus causes monkeypox,
prairie dogs are preadapted to transmit either. People who keep prairie
dogs as pets are, in one sense, joining a prairie dog colony and can understandably
be vulnerable to what prairie dogs give each other.
Monkeypox is probably not going to become a raging epidemic, even among
people who keep prairie dogs as pets. Although I have not seen a statistic
on how many people keep pet animals capable of carrying monkeypox, I would
bet that of those who have, a vanishingly small percentage have ever suffered
from the disease. Keeping such pets clean and well fed, as well as practicing
normal hygienic behavior after handling them, eliminates most of the possibilities
for transmittable diseases. Clearly, then, pets alone are not responsible
for transmitting diseases to human. The pet owners probably play a major
role in most cases--and presumably those owners, unlike the pets, can
take steps to prevent the spread of disease.
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