New Killer Virus In Africa

    Jun-02-2009

In what may be called a major breakthrough in virology, researchers at the Columbia University in New York and at Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) in Atlanta have discovered a new deadly germ that leads to blood loss much akin to the atrocious Ebola virus. The virus, named Lujo, has already contaminated five persons in South Africa and Zambia last winter. Four victims of the pathogen have succumbed to their infections, while the fifth succeed in overcoming the contagion possibly following the use of a medication suggested by the scientists studying the virus.

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According to Dr. Ian Lipkin, an epidemiologist associated with the Columbia University who is engaged in the discovery of the deadly virus, although it is yet to be ascertained how the first victim came in contact with the germ, it has been established that the virus hails from a family of pathogens present in the rodents. He says that the new virus is not only deadly, but also extremely destructive.

In effect, the spate of the virus commenced in September last year when a female travel agent living on the fringes of Lusaka in Zambia suddenly contacted an illness akin to fever that worsened rapidly. Though the lady was rushed by air to Johannesburg in South Africa, the doctors could not save her and she succumbed to the infection there. What is worse that a paramedic who took care of the lady in Lusaka also fell sick and was taken to Johannesburg, but eventually succumbed to the virus attack. The other three victims of the pathogen were also health workers from Johannesburg.

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Researches are of the opinion that the deadly virus spread passes on from one person to another by way of getting in touch with the contaminated body fluids. Researchers have named the new pathogen as Lujo, which has been derived from the names of the African cities Lusaka and Johannesburg where the virus was first spotted. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, an organization that had financed the study, the deadly Lujo virus is unlike any other pathogen or akin to the flu virus that spreads rapidly and extensively.

Initially, the African researches were of the view that the ailment could be Ebola as some of the patients affected with the virus had symptoms of bleeding gums and approximately needle inoculation spots. The chief of the molecular biology laboratory in the Pathogens Branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) in Atlanta, Stuart Nichol said that the other symptoms found in the patients included fever, coma and organ failure.

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Later, blood and liver samples of the Lujo virus attack victims were sent to the United States, at the Columbia University in New York and the CDC in Atlanta. Examinations conducted by the scientists at these two organizations concluded that the virus was a member of the arenavirus family and is also vaguely associated with another disease prevalent in Africa and known as the Lassa fever. According to Stuart Nichol, the drug prescribed for treating the Lassa fever - ribavirin - was also administered to a nurse from Johannesburg who was the fifth victim of the virus infection and managed to recuperate. Nichol, however, says that the scientists are not sure whether this drug worked for the victim or she managed to recover completely as the virus infection was of very mild nature.

Describing the success of the research as amazing, Dr. Anthony Fauci pointed out that this has demonstrated how swiftly scientists are able to recognize new viruses. In this case, the scientists made use of the genetic progression procedure which helped them to identify Lujo in a few days' time. Earlier, the process of identifying a new virus took quite a few weeks or even longer periods.

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A closer look into Lujo virus

Lujo is known to be responsible for causing viral hemorrhagic fever (also known as VHF) in humans. A two-segmented RNA virus, it belongs to the Arenaviridae family. Interestingly enough, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases of the National Health Laboratory Service's (NICD-NHLS) Special Pathogens Unit was the first to suggest the name of this virus. It used the first two letters of the names of each of the two cities, where the disease appeared as epidemics in 2008 - Lusaka in Zambia and Johannesburg in the Republic of South Africa. While the Lassa virus was the first pathogenic arenavirus to be reported from Africa, Lujo is the second such virus.

This new virus was discovered possible after the extremely fatal VHF epidemic in a hospital (nosocomial) in Johannesburg.

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Members of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) Special Pathogens Unit along with their colleagues in the NICD-NHLS Special Pathogens Unit undertook a series of molecular as well as serological examination to find the pathogenic source that was responsible for the epidemic and recognized it to be an arenavirus of the Old World. Sequencing as well as phylogenetic examination of the incomplete genome sequencing hinted that the pathogen responsible for the outbreak was something different from Lassa virus and in all likelihood it was an arenavirus that had not been reported earlier. A complete genome sequencing undertaken by the CDC, NICD-NHLS together with colleagues from the New York-based Columbia University confirmed the earlier findings of the scientists.

In fact, the scientists identified Lujo virus, a new constituent of the arenavirus family among patients who breathed their last during the hemorrhagic fever outbreak in the later part of 2008. Sequencing tests showed that Lujo to be a latest arenavirus, which is genetically different from the other members of arenavirus family also comprising the Lassa virus.

In September 2008, the scientists identified a patient having inexplicable hemorrhagic fever in Zambia. When this patient was taken to Sandton for additional treatment, four healthcare professionals attending on him also fell ill. While the first four patients who contacted the disease succumbed to their ailment, another one managed to survive following treatment using ribavirin.

Following sequence examination of the complete liver as well as serum RNA of the patients, the scientists found the existence of a new member of the arenavirus family. Temporarily, this virus has been name Lujo subject to its places of origin - Lusaka in Zambia (Africa) and Johannesburg in South Africa. Depending on the viral genome sequences, the scientists prepared phylogenetic trees, which revealed that the Lujo virus separated from the Old World arenaviruses roots. This examination also puts forward that Lujo virus belongs to a new genetic lineage, and is very different from the characterized viruses that were discovered earlier and belonged to the same family.

However, it is yet to be ascertained the manner in which Lujo virus infected the very first case. Majority of the arenavirus infections occur when people come in contact with contaminated rodent excreta, by inhaling the aerosolized particles or dust containing the virus, or consumption of foods infected by the virus. In fact, in any case arenavirus may possibly be spread by bats and this may also hold true in the case of Lujo virus. It is believed that the first patient infected by Lujo virus probably spread the infection through aerosols or contaminated body fluids to the four healthcare professionals who were attending on the patient in Sandton.

Now, many notable facets of this story are emerging gradually. First and foremost, it is obvious that it is possible to identify novel pathogens rapidly by means of pyrosequencing. In this instance, the scientists acquired the sequences in just 72 hours after receiving the clinical specimens. As four of the five patients who were infected by Lujo virus succumbed to their condition, it seems that this new member of arenavirus family virus is extremely lethal for humans. Nevertheless, the number of Lujo virus infections that have been identified till now is very small and the ratio of lethality may perhaps decline as scientists study more instances of infections by this arenavirus.

As the scientists are now familiar with the sequence of this new member of arenavirus, it is possible to produce reagents that will make it possibly to identify the new cases more rapidly by using more conservative diagnostic methods, for instance, polymerase chain reaction. As it has been discussed earlier, Lujo is the latest member of the arenavirus family and very different from the other arenaviruses that belong to the Old as well as the New World. The precise reason why this infection has occurred in human is yet to be ascertained. The scientists have, however, thought of a number of possible reasons, which include humans coming in contact with wild animal species more often. It is very possible that a virus that is intimately related to the Lujo virus already exists in bats or rodents, but was not detected earlier by the scientists.

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