New Virus Linked to Three Calif. Deaths

A rare virus largely unknown in North America has killed a 14-year-old Oakland area girl, and it may be responsible for two more California deaths in the last 14 months, state officials said Thursday.

The state Department of Health Services said tests showed the girl died of an arenavirus, which like the hantavirus, is believed to be transmitted to humans through dust carrying the urine, feces or saliva of infected rodents.

The arenavirus is also strongly suspected of killing a 30-year-old woman in Orange County and a 52-year-old woman in Riverside County in the last 14 months.

The girl died in April, the Orange County woman in June and the Riverside woman in June 1999.

All three victims were hospitalized with fever and respiratory problems. Two of them had liver disease and bleeding consistent with viral hemorrhagic fever, the department said.

Human Infections Rare

Arenavirus infections have been found in rodents in Southern California in recent years, but human infections in North America have been rare, officials said.

“Viral hemorrhagic fever associated with arenaviruses has never been documented in the United States except among overseas travelers and laboratory personnel exposed accidentally while doing research,” said Diana Bonta, the department’s director.

Several arenaviruses are known in parts of Africa and South America. They cause mild to severe infections characterized by fever, headache and occasionally severe bleeding or nervous system problems.

State officials said the cause of the girl’s death was confirmed after tests were done at the University of Texas Medical Branch. Initial tests indicate arenavirus killed the two women, but additional tests are being conducted.

The department said the drug ribavirin has been used successfully in the treatment of arenavirus infections, but officials urged Californians to avoid contact with rodents and to take precautions when cleaning buildings with signs of rodent infestation.