Scientists discovered deadly haemorrhagic fever similar to Ebola that spread person-to-person in Bolivia
- Chapare virus causes a haemorrhagic fever similar to Ebola.
- The disease was last observed in Bolivia in 2004 and appeared again in 2019.
- Healthcare workers caught the virus by coming into contact with infected bodily fluids.
- Experts say data-sharing allowed them to develop a test very quickly. They said Chapare is not a pandemic threat.
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A small but deadly outbreak in Bolivia yielded new information about a mysterious virus discovered in 2004.
The virus, named Chapare virus after the region where it was first observed, causes a haemorrhagic fever similar to Ebola. Five cases were confirmed near La Paz, Bolivia's capital city, in 2019, and three of them were fatal.
Three of the cases were healthcare workers who may have contracted the virus from their patients. A medical resident who died of the disease may have been infected while suctioning saliva from a patient, and an ambulance worker who was infected may have contracted the virus while resuscitating that medical resident, according to a report presented today at the annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
This evidence of human-to-human transmission is reason for caution among healthcare workers in the region, and the investigators urged anyone dealing with suspected cases of Chapare virus to avoid contact with patients' bodily fluids.
The investigators were surprised to see Chapare virus show up after 15 years
Those infected with Chapare virus had symptoms including fever, headache, body ache, nausea, and bleeding from the gums, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention virologist Maria Morales-Betoulle told Insider. She and her colleagues thought the illness was caused by dengue, a more common virus with similar symptoms.
"In South America in general, when people see cases with those symptoms, they immediately think about dengue and they do not necessarily think about a virus like Chapare," Morales-Betoulle said. "But you will not find what you're not looking for."
When the team in Bolivia realised the illness was not caused by dengue, they sent patient samples to a CDC laboratory in the US with advanced genome sequencing capabilities. It was there that, to the researchers' surprise, the virus was identified as Chapare.
Chapare virus is not a pandemic threat
Chapare virus is much harder to catch than the coronavirus. While the coronavirus is easily transmissible via the respiratory route, Chapare spreads through direct contact with bodily fluids at the peak of one's illness.
The people who are at risk of contracting Chapare virus are those having close contact with the sick, like healthcare workers and family members taking care of people at home, ASTMH scientific program chair and president-elect Daniel Bausch said.
Additionally, Chapare virus is fairly geographically specific, Bausch said. The report provided some evidence that the small-eared pigmy rice rat may carry the virus, and those rats are only found in certain parts of South America.
"This is not the sort of virus that we need to worry is going to start the next pandemic or create a major outbreak," Bausch told Insider.
Data-sharing help the team very quickly develop a test
Using the CDC lab's cutting-edge technology, the international team was able to quickly develop an RT-PCR test to diagnose the virus in the future.
Morales-Betoulle said the speedy response was a team effort among Bolivian scientists and health officials, colleagues at the Pan American Health Organisation, and infectious disease experts at CDC headquarters.
"That would have been someone's five-year PhD project when the tools were developing," Bausch said.
"Now these are things that are just done at an incredible pace, and it's really transforming outbreak response in general where we're getting to the point where identifying the pathogen is really no longer the major challenge."