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New Viruses Tracked in Hot Zones

AIDS is considered to be a new virus, because it has only recently mutated so that it can invade human beings. Virus hunters are now trying to catch another newly created viruses early, so they can take preventative action to keep it from spreading. They're looking for the Nipah virus in the "hot zones" of Australia, Malaysia, India, Sumatra and Thailand, where it's transmitted by the fruit bat. It first broke out in Malaysia in 1998 and killed thousands of pigs before it moved on to kill 110 people.

"We want to know what changes drove this virus to emerge in the first place," says Peter Daszak, of the Consortium for Conservation Medicine. "What conditions allowed this virus to jump from bats to pigs to people?" Fruit bats range from Southeast Asia to Africa, and different species may carry different varieties of Nipah.

Like AIDS, Nipah doesn?t affect its fruit bat host. The host for the AIDS virus hasn?t been identified but is thought to be a rare species of green monkey. But once the virus mutates and affects humans, it spreads from person to person (or between animals) and no longer needs contact with its host. Wildlife veterinarian Hume Field has found that Nipah spreads quickly in pigs and brings on a "terrible rasping cough," hemorrhaging and pneumonia. When the virus reaches the brain, it kills them quickly. Since humans are closely related to pigs genetically, and because we keep pigs, scientists are worried that Nipah could hit us hard. It causes flu-like symptoms in people that lead to encephalitis and catatonia and is fatal 40% of the time.

Nipah may have mutated in 1998 in response to El Ni?o, which caused severe dry conditions. People set fires to clear new land and forced the fruit bats to leave the forests. They ended up in orchards, with pigpens nearby, and may have dropped contaminated fruit that fell into pigpens. "It's a really unnatural set of circumstances that has brought pigs in close contact with fruit bats," says Daszak. AIDS may have started by Africans eating green monkeys.

Researcher Jonathan Patz says, "These environmental landscape changes like logging and burning are global in scale, and have the potential to bring together people, wildlife and reservoirs of diseases in ways we couldn't anticipate."

It's comforting to know that, whatever happens, we'll have a new life otherwhere.

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