West Nile, polio said linked

July 1, 1993

West Nile, polio said linked

By Joe Baker, Senior Editor

At least six patients in the southern United States, infected with West Nile virus last month, displayed symptoms of another disease—polio.

These victims displayed impaired limbs, breathing difficulties and fevers, all marks of polio, a disease thought eradicated from this country years ago. Patricia Doyle, Ph.D., a researcher and epidemiologist, says there is reason to believe the strain of West Nile virus causing the recent outbreaks in this country is a recombinant or manufactured virus. She also suspects the virus has been altered in the laboratory to trigger a polio-like disease.

“All of the anomalies that we are seeing in the U.S. regarding the West Nile virus outbreak have not occurred in other areas of the world where WNV is endemic and ingrained in the environment,” Dr. Doyle said.

Many mosquito-borne illnesses spread by birds have been endemic in the U.S., she said. These diseases, though, have largely been confined to certain areas of the country and have not spread from one coast to the other, as this strain of WNV has.

Dr. Doyle also noted that a synthetic polio virus was created from scratch in a lab at Rockefeller University. Experiments with West Nile virus were carried out at Sloan Kettering Institute in New York City in the 1950s. The virus has been in possession of domestic research labs at Rockefeller University in Manhattan and Yale University in New Haven, Conn. for decades. Investigators at the latter institutions were the first in this country to grow and study WNV.

The New England Journal of Medicine released articles on the link between polio and West Nile virus nearly a month before their scheduled publication because of their urgency and medical importance, according to the Boston Globe.

Polio virus attacks the human spinal cord, which contains the neurons which carry information to the muscles. As the neuron fibers are frayed by the virus, muscles go limp or work erratically, with serious consequences.

The Centers for Disease Control reported West Nile virus has claimed more than 90 lives in the country this year and infected about 2,000 persons. This is the largest outbreak since the virus first was reported three years ago.

Doctors who wrote the articles in the medical journal said they are concerned because some of the patients they saw had been misdiagnosed and had been given treatment orders that could have been life-threatening. They fear many other cases have gone untreated and unreported.

A physician in Mississippi saw a patient in early August who exhibited signs of muscle weakness. The doctor reviewed the man’s chart and learned the patient had been diagnosed with early symptoms of stroke and Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a disease in which the immune system attacks part of the body’s nervous system.

Only after blood tests and a battery of special tests to measure activity in nerves and spinal cord cells, did the doctors there conclude the man was suffering from polio, caused by West Nile virus.

Medicines initially given to the patient could have killed him, the doctor said. Three of four patients in Mississippi were expected to survive, but three of them may have permanent disabilities.

Dr. Eckard Wimmer, who heads a biomedical research team at the State University of New York, has recreated the polio virus as part of a research project financed by the Pentagon. It is part of a search for better means to combat biological warfare.

The surprising thing is, according to Dr. Wimmer, that he and his team were able to accomplish this by downloading the virus’ genome sequence from a data base on the Internet.

“There are databases that have the numbers for certain viruses,” Wimmer said, “and you plot in the number in a computer.” He chose polio, he said, because he has long- term experience with the virus, and it is a relatively simple one. Recreating smallpox or some other viruses would be much more difficult, he said.

But Dr. Wimmer readily admits that technology moves rapidly, and in the not too distant future, researchers may be able to recreate larger and more deadly viruses such as Ebola and also alter them genetically. It is a very scary scenario to the layman.

“I think the research has to be done,” he said, “because we have to do these things rather than one day be surprised when some person uses that to attack us. But it is better to do it now when there is not a problem.”

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