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FOR RELEASE: June10, 2003
CONTACT: Pamela Williams
Office of Communications
405/271-5601

Monkeypox Not a Risk in Native Prairie Dog Populations

Oklahoma State Department of Health officials said today that the state’s native prairie dog population does not harbor monkeypox, a viral disease that has recently been detected in pet prairie dogs distributed through exotic pet market channels in three states.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is currently investigating more than 30 cases of rash illness in persons in Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois who had contact with ill prairie dogs purchased at pet stores or exotic pet “swap meets.” Thus far, CDC has received laboratory confirmation of monkeypox in four of these individuals. Monkeypox is a viral illness from the same orthopox family as smallpox, but is less infectious. In nature, monkeypox is known only to occur in rain forest regions of Africa and is a disease of humans, monkeys, rabbits, and some types of wild rodent animals.

Public health officials emphasize that Oklahoma’s wild prairie dog population does not pose a risk of monkeypox exposure. They caution, however, that to reduce the potential for disease transmission, any prairie dogs that may presently be owned as pets should not be released to the wild nor should wild animals, in general, be acquired as pets.

“Any new virus introduced into an ecosystem where it has not been seen before could produce severe illness and increase the potential for infection in other animal populations,” said State Public Health Veterinarian Dr. Kristy Bradley.

Dr. Bradley also strongly cautioned against purchasing prairie dogs or giant Gambian rats through the exotic animal market.

Although no monkeypox has been reported in Oklahoma, health officials say it is difficult to know if any potentially infected pets could be in the state. Persons who keep pet prairie dogs, Gambian rats, or rabbits, and who develop a fever and rash illness, should immediately call their physician and the Oklahoma State Department of Health at 405/271-4060.

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