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Cold virus variant blamed in 10 deaths

No precautions urged, but agency tracking US cases

Email|Print| Text size + By Mike Stobbe
Associated Press / November 16, 2007

ATLANTA - A mutated version of a common cold virus has caused 10 deaths in the last 18 months, US health officials said yesterday.

Adenoviruses usually cause respiratory infections that aren't considered lethal. But a new variant has caused at least 140 illnesses in New York, Oregon, Washington, and Texas, according to a report issued yesterday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

CDC officials do not consider the mutation to be a cause for alarm for most people, and they are not recommending any new precautions for the general public.

"It's an uncommon infection," said Dr. Larry Anderson, a CDC epidemiologist.

The illness made headlines in Texas earlier this year, when a so-called boot camp flu sickened hundreds at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. The most serious cases were blamed on the emerging virus, and one 19-year-old trainee died.

"What really got people's attention is these are healthy young adults landing in the hospital and, in some cases, the ICU," said Dr. John Su, an infectious diseases investigator with the CDC.

There are more than 50 distinct types of adenoviruses tied to human illnesses. They are one cause of the common cold, and also trigger pneumonia and bronchitis. Severe illnesses are more likely in people with weaker immune systems.

Some adenoviruses have also been blamed for gastroenteritis, conjunctivitis, and cystitis.

There are no good antiviral medications for adenoviruses. Patients usually are treated with aspirin, liquids, and bed rest.

Some people who get infected by the new bug may not suffer symptoms, and some may feel just a common cold. Sick people should see a doctor if they suffer a high fever or have trouble breathing, Anderson said.

In the CDC report, the earliest case of the mutated virus was found in an infant girl in New York City who died last year. The child seemed healthy right after birth, but then became dehydrated and lost her appetite. She died 12 days after she was born.

Tests found that she had been infected with a form of adenovirus called Ad14, but with some small differences, Su said.

It's not clear how the changes made it more lethal, said Linda Gooding, an Emory University researcher who specializes in adenoviruses.

Earlier this year, hundreds of trainees at Lackland became ill with respiratory infections. Tests showed a variety of adenoviruses in the trainees, but at least 106 - and probably more - had the mutated form of Ad14, including five who ended up in an intensive care unit.

In April, Oregon health officials learned of a cluster of cases at a Portland-area hospital. They ultimately counted 31 cases, including seven patients who died with severe pneumonia. The next month, Washington state officials reported four hospitalized patients had the same mutated virus. One, who also had AIDS, died.

The Ad14 form of adenovirus was identified in 1955. In 1969, it was blamed for a rash of illnesses in military recruits in Europe, but has been detected rarely since then. But it seems to be growing more common.

Some CDC officials said a vaccination against the mutant Ad14 might be needed.

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