BY STEVE CONNOR
A new measles-like virus that is lethal to humans and horses has emerged in Australia.
Medical researchers, who report details of the new virus today in the journal Science, believe it is the first new measles-like agent to infect humans since the 10th century, when measles itself was first described.
The virus belongs to the morbillivirus family, which includes canine distemper, rinderpest or ``cattle plague'', and the virus that has infected seals off the British coast.
Scientists from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, near Melbourne, found the virus in tissue samples taken from a mysterious outbreak of fever last September at a stable near Brisbane. The virus killed 14 out of 21 horses as well as their trainer, a 49-year-old man who developed an influenza-like illness and died of pneumonia. Another stable worker became ill but recovered.
Keith Murphy, head of the animal health laboratory at the research organisation, told Science that the virus had evidently jumped from an as yet unidentified natural host - probably a wild animal - to horses and then to humans. ``We have no idea of where it came from, or where it's going to ... but the odds are it will reappear,'' he said.
The initial outbreak was quickly brought under control, and blood tests on about 1,600 horses and 90 people in the area confirmed that the virus did not appear to have spread.
Although the virus, now called equine morbillivirus, is similar to measles, it attacks the body in a different way. It causes the cells lining the blood vessels to clump together, creating holes in the vessel walls so that fluid leaks into the lungs, in effect drowning victims in their own fluids.
Neil Edington, an expert in animal viruses at the Royal Veterinary College in London,said that from the available information it appears that equine morbillivirus is not easily spread from one individual to another.
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