Hantavirus: "Deadly Deceit" (part one)
Cr osswinds Magazine Feb. 94 with part two in February 1995. (seen below)
It was a particularly windy and wet spring of 1993 according to many residents of the Four Corners area, which includes the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. The sprawling Navajo Indian Reservation sits on much of this beautiful land . Also, situated right in the heart of the Navajo Nation is the now de-commissioned army-munitions base, Fort Wingate, just 30 miles east of Gallup, New Mexico.
However, 1993's spring weather blew in much more than was expected this particular season, especially in eastern Arizona and northwestern New Mexico. The dry, arid and sparsely populated land became front-page news locally and around the world in April of 1993 when the first victims, a young Navajo woman and then her fiance'e, died of what was called at first a mysterious flu-like illness. What would happen from April, the time of the first death, to July of 1993 when the epidemic subsided considerably, would become a nightmare for all who lived in the area, but especially for the Navajo people.
Mindless reporters called it the "Navajo Flu" or the "Navajo Disease." The Navajo Reservation was inundated with reporters from all over the United States, often treading on sacred property and asking questions, prying into the lives of a proud and private peoples. What could possibly be causing normally healthy individuals to die within days of contacting this mysterious virus? Why did it so quickly strike down Merrill Bahe, a Navajo Indian track star at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe?
These questions and many more linger in the minds of not only those families touched by the tragedy but also in the minds of many concerned citizens who don't believe the official version of the epidemic as propagated by the media as well as the medical and military establishment. The answers, as in many publicized cases of mysterious deaths like the Legionnaires' disease case in Philadelphia in the late '70s, are proving to be elusive.
THE EPIDEMIC'S TOLL
By the end of the summer of 1993 13 people had died from this mysterious illness, which featured symptoms of fever, headache and cough, myalgias (tenderness or pain in the muscles) followed by rapid respiratory failure. The illness occurred predominantly in young, previously healthy persons. It took on the average from 12 hours to several days for the people to succumb from the illness.
By the end of the year 27 people, some not in the Four Corners area, had died from this mysterious illness. Once intense protest from the Navajo Tribal Council forced the local and national press to rename the epidemic, the disease then became called "The Mystery Illness", "Four Corners Disease" or the medical term for such similar cases, ARDS (Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome).
The investigation began locally, at the spot where the first people died, the Indian Medical Center in Gallup, which is run by the Indian Health Service, a part of the U.S. government Health Department. In fact, the first two deaths might have never been reported if the victims were not brought into the government-funded health center as the Navajo Nation is sovereign and self-governing and does not have to report deaths on Indian land to the Office of the Medical Investigator. Then, officially, the New Mexico State Department of Health (NMDH) in cooperation with medical laboratories at the University of New Mexico got involved when they announced on May 28th that they had discovered this new epidemic. Soon after, the presence of a new entity arrived in force in New Mexico to take over the investigation, the Centers for Disease Control for Infectious Diseases (CDC), based in Atlanta, Lucida Grande.
Press conferences were held daily at the New Mexico Department of Health Building in Santa Fe starting on May 30th with both national and local media in attendance. State epidemiologist Dr. Mark Sewell announced at the first press conference that the investigation was in the beginning stages and that much data needed to be acquired. Only five days later on June 4th, according to the CDC at a press conference at the New Mexico Department of Health, the cause of the disease was announced as being caused by the Hantavirus, an Arbovirus of the family of Bunya virus..
The hantavirus that killed the first 13 people was now officially called by the CDC the "Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome" (HPS). The CDC told the public that the disease was a deadlier form of the Haantan Virus, a virus named after the Haantan River where it was discovered in South Korea in the 1950s. The hantavirus was also called Hemorrhagic Fever with Renal Syndrome (HFRS), Epidemic Hemorrhagic Fever (EHF), Congo Fever and many others. It affected many U.S. soldiers in Korea during the war. The CDC said that it was being carried and spread here by the deer mouse (Peromyscus maniculatus). Humans, the first reports said, got the new strain of the hantavirus by breathing in the dried feces of the deer mouse.
Due to the heavy rainfall and bumper pinon crops, the CDC said, there was also an overabundance of deer mice. The proposed theory was that spring cleaning and other household chores caused these people to die when they inhaled these mice droppings.
Native American traditions also began playing a part in this scenario as Navajo medicine men were quoted in newspaper stories connecting mice with disease on the reservation. When CDC researchers first appeared on the reservation, traditional healers, or hataalis, quickly alerted them to the presence of burgeoned rodent populations following a mild, wet winter. Immediately, the CDC in cooperation with the local health authorities began disseminating information on how to avoid contact with mice feces.
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