MADISON, WI (AP)--A virus similar to smallpox apparently jumped from pet prairie dogs to at least four people--possibly dozens--in the disease's first appearance in the Western Hemisphere.

Four Wisconsin residents have confirmed cases of the monkeypox virus and 14 others have suspected cases, said Milwaukee health commissioner Dr. Seth Foldy. At least 10 more cases are suspected in Indiana, officials confirmed June 9. Illinois has three suspected cases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said June 7 the prairie dogs likely were infected with the virus by a giant Gambian rat, which is indigenous to Africa, at a Chicago-area pet distributor.

The four people confirmed with the virus contracted it by close contact with prairie dogs, Wisconsin officials said. Thirteen of the people suspected of having the virus in Wisconsin had been around prairie dogs and the other apparently contracted it while handling a sick rabbit that had been near a prairie dog. Foldy said it doesn't appear anyone contracted the virus from another person.

Monkeypox in humans is not usually fatal, but causes rashes, fevers and chills. Doctors initially feared they might be facing smallpox, which causes similar symptoms, but scientists quickly eliminated that possibility after discovering the link between people and prairie dogs. Monkeypox's incubation period is about 12 days.

Two patients at Froedtert Memorial Lutheran Hospital in Milwaukee were in satisfactory condition June 8, hospital spokesman Mark McLaughlin said. The two were isolated and doctors treating them wore caps, gowns and masks. Other suspected victims were treated and released.

Health officials are trying to contain the virus by preventing more animals from becoming infected.

Wisconsin's Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection warned people not to release prairie dogs into the wild, agency spokeswoman Donna Gilson said. Prairie dogs are burrowing herbivores indigenous to the West and Southwest, not to Wisconsin. The agency also told state humane societies to isolate any prairie dogs people bring in.

The human mortality rate from monkeypox in Africa has ranged from one to 10%, but Foldy said the virus may be less lethal in the United States because people are typically better nourished and medical technology is far more advanced.

The prairie dogs were sold by a Milwaukee animal distributor in May to two pet shops in the Milwaukee area and during a pet "swap meet" in northern Wisconsin, the CDC said.

Both Wisconsin and Illinois have banned the sale, importation and display of prairie dogs. The Illinois ban also covers Gambian rats.

The Illinois Department of Agriculture prohibited Phil's Pocket Pets, the pet distributor in Villa Park, IL, where the prairie dogs may have been infected, from selling animals until the animals' health is verified.

The owner of Phil's has given Illinois officials a list of all who bought prairie dogs, Gambian rats or other exotic animals since April 15, the Illinois Department of Public Health said. No telephone listing could be found for the store June 8.

The popularity of prairie dogs as pets has grown in recent years. Last year 10,000 prairie dogs were shipped out of Texas to become pets, said David Crawford, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Animal Defense, a nonprofit organization that advocates for animal freedom.

Tammy Kautzer's Dorchester farm in central Wisconsin has been quarantined because she purchased two prairie dogs at the Wausau swap meet. Less than two weeks later, her three-year-old daughter, Schyan, was bitten by one of the animals and spent seven days in the hospital with a 103-degree fever, swollen eyes and red bumps on her skin.

"It was getting a little scary," Kautzer said. "Three days straight (in the hospital), she just slept and cried."

Kautzer and her husband, Steve, also developed similar rashes but are recovering. The prairie dog that bit Schyan has died. The other animal became ill but is recovering.

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