Field Studies on the Epidemiology of Venezuelan Hemorrhagic Fever: Implication of the Cotton Rat Sigmodon alstoni as the Probable Rodent Reservoir

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  • Yale Arbovirus Research Unit, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, Yale University School of Medicine, Virology Section, National Institute of Hygiene Rafael Rangel, Ministry of Health and Social Assistance, Portuguesa State Sanitary Region, Special Pathogens Branch, Division of Viral and Rickettsial Diseases, National Center for Infectious Diseases, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New Haven, Connecticut, Venezuela

During February 1992, field studies on the epidemiology of Venezuelan hemorrhagic fever (VHF) were carried out in a rural area of Portuguesa State in central Venezuela. The objective of this work was to determine the prevalence of infection with Guanarito virus, the etiologic agent of VHF, among wild rodents and humans living within an endemic focus of the disease. A total of 234 rodents, representing nine different species, were collected and their spleens were cultured for virus. Thirty-one Guanarito virus isolates were made from two rodent species: 19 from 40 Sigmodon alstoni and 12 from 106 Zygodontomys brevicauda. Guanarito virus antibody rates among these two species were 5.1% and 15.0%, respectively. Nine of the 12 Z. brevicauda that yielded virus from their spleens also had Guanarito virus antibodies in their sera. In contrast, none of the 19 Guanarito virus-positive S. alstoni had antibodies to the virus. These data suggest that S. alstoni usually develops a persistent nonimmunizing infection with Guanarito virus, while Z. brevicauda develops an immunizing infection. Based on knowledge of the behavior of other human pathogenic arenaviruses, these results imply that S. alstoni is the principal rodent reservoir of Guanarito virus in nature. To determine the prevalence of Guanarito virus infection among humans in the same region, 195 people living near one of the rodent collecting sites were bled and their sera were tested for antibodies to the virus. Five individuals (2.6%) had Guanarito virus antibodies; all were adults, and two had been diagnosed previously as having VHF. The results of these preliminary serologic studies suggest that the prevalence of human infection with Guanarito virus in the VHF endemic region is relatively low, but that the percentage of infected people who develop severe disease is relatively high.