Epidemic Polyarthritis (Ross River) Virus Infection in the Cook Islands

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  • Arbovirus Program, Pacific Biomedical Research Center, University of Hawaii, Vector-Borne Diseases Division, Centers for Disease Control, South Pacific Commission, P.O. Box 1680, Honolulu, Hawaii 96806

An epidemic of Ross River virus infection occurred in the Cook Islands early in 1980 and affected the majority of the inhabitants of Rarotonga, the most populated island in the group. This represents the easternmost extension of the virus which, until 1979, was believed limited to Australia, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. The clinical manifestations of Ross River disease, predominantly polyarthritis, did not differ significantly from those observed previously in Australia. However, unlike the experience in Australia, where Ross River virus has never been isolated from a patient with polyarthritis, the agent was recovered from the serum of one-half of approximately 100 such patients with serologically proven infections. It is not known if this latter observation is the result of a change in the virus, the different virus isolation technique employed, or other factors. It was found that the incubation period of the disease could be as short as 3 days—much less than previously suspected. Ross River virus was isolated from six pools of Aedes polynesiensis mosquitoes collected in nature and it appeared that this species was the most probable vector on Rarotonga. In view of the widespread distribution of Ae. polynesiensis on islands in the eastern Pacific it would not be surprising if Ross River virus occurs in other previously unaffected areas in the future.

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