Wednesday, June 10, 2009

New arenavirus discovered as cause of hemorrhagic fever outbreak

A new arenavirus called the Lujo virus was identified as the cause of a highly fatal hemorrhagic fever outbreak in Lusaka, Zambia and Johannesburg, South Africa in September and October of 2008 in South Africa after the air transfer of a critically ill person from Zambia. Of the five cases observed, four passed away (the originally ill patient, a paramedic, a nurse, and a member of the hospital staff who cleaned the patient's room). It is the first new hemorrhagic fever-associated arenavirus from Africa identified in nearly four decades. Using genetic extracts of blood and liver from the victims, researchers found through unbiased high-throughput sequencing that the virus is distantly related to Lassa virus and Lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus (LCMV). Lassa virus causes an acute hemorrhagic fever that causes approximately 5,000 deaths a year in West African countries. Lymphatic choriomeningitis is a rodent-borne viral disease that causes meningitis or encephalitis. About 5% of the US population is infected with the virus.

As mentioned before, the researchers used a technique called unbiased high-throughput sequencing to identify the new virus within just 72 hours. Lipkin, one of the professors responsible for the identification of the virus, said, "it is reassuring that we now have the tools needed to rapidly detect and respond to the challenges of unknown pathogens. A key challenge that remains is deployment of these technologies to the 'hot spots' where new killer viruses frequently emerge. We remain committed to this important public health effort as it represents a unique opportunity to prevent the next pandemic, be it a threat like HIV or SARS." It is exciting that we possess the technology to identify new viruses, but like Lipkin said, can we feasibly use this technology in these "hot spots" which often have weak infrastructure and a lack of resources? I think this case highlights the gap between research conducted in laboratories and action on the ground. There needs to be an effective and feasible delivery mechanism, and I hope that there is more research performed to make this technology more accessible.

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