The Prairie Dog Problem

Schyan Kautzerhas had a rough couple of weeks. First, the 3-year-old's new pet prairie dog bit her finger. Next, a temperature of 103 landed her in the hospital. Then her parents tried to medicate her pet--which wasn't doing well, either--and ended up sick themselves, all suffering from monkeypox, the latest exotic ailment to show up in the United States. By Friday of last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was investigating 72 possible cases (13 confirmed) in the Midwest and New Jersey, largely among prairie-dog owners. The Kautzers are better now, but the rest of the country is still feeling a little queasy. Here's what you should know:

What exactly is monkeypox, and how did it get here? A far less deadly relative of smallpox, monkeypox is a rare virus first isolated in African monkeys. It's transmitted only by bodily fluids--like the saliva from a bite. Symptoms include high temperature, aches, a sore throat and red, pus-filled bumps. Mortality ranges from 1 to 10 percent; so far, no deaths have occurred in the United States. Monkeypox may have gotten here via a sick Gambian rat that infected prairie dogs kept by the same distributor, which then sold them to buyers in several states. The CDC is investigating other theories, too.

I don't own a prairie dog. Should I be worried? Unless you own another animal that can catch monkeypox--it's shown up in U.S. pet rabbits so far, but may be able to infect other common pets--you're probably safe. Last week a suspected case of person-to-person transmission in Wisconsin surprised scientists, who didn't think that was possible--but most still say a large epidemic is unlikely because the odds of animal-to-human and human-to-human transmission are low.

How can I protect myself? If you got the smallpox vaccine before it was discontinued in 1980, you're already protected to some degree. The CDC is now offering the shot to health-care workers who may have been exposed to monkeypox by patients. But there's a simpler (and obvious) way for the rest of us to avoid the pox: stay away from sickly animals.

Are my pets safe? Most likely, but if you bought your pet recently, or if it came from a store that sold exotic animals, you should keep a close eye on it. Monkeypox symptoms in animals include skin rashes, hair loss and discharge from the eyes or nose. If your pet develops any of these problems, pick it up with gloves and place it in a cardboard box (with air holes!). Then call the vet.

Does this mean I shouldn't buy any other exotic pets? For years, biologists have worried that imported pets would bring unusual diseases to the States. "This incident just proves how much we need to stiffen the laws on animal importation," says University of Minnesota epidemiologist Jeff Bender. So, yes, it's a good idea to stick with non-imported pets--if not to avoid monkeypox, to ward off the next disease. As for home-grown prairie dogs, pet consult-ant Gena Seaber says they're being scapegoated. "The prairie dog is just the victim here," she says. But Bender thinks they're still a dicey choice of pet because they are susceptible to other exotic diseases.

Will the government have this under control soon? It's hard to say. Because the disease usually burns itself out gradually, it isn't likely to become established in wild populations of rodents, like West Nile did with birds. But it keeps surprising health officials. Milwaukee City Health Commissioner Seth Foldy says that in the best-case scenario, "we may be able to eliminate this virus from the continent." But he admits that "we only have one shot at it," while it's still relatively contained. As for the worst-case scenario, he says he doesn't know--and he doesn't want to find out. With luck, he won't have to.

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