China reports its first human death from rare monkey B virus

China says it has recorded its first primate-to-human infection and death involving the monkey B virus, a rare and deadly pathogen that remains little-understood in some parts of the world.

The victim was a 53-year-old veterinarian from Beijing who contracted the infection while dissecting dead monkeys in early March, according to China’s CDC Weekly. The patient started showing symptoms in April and died on May 27, officials said. Two close contacts have since tested negative for the virus.

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The patient developed symptoms including nausea, fever and vomiting about a month after the infection. Neurological symptoms started to appear soon afterward, prompting health officials to run a battery of tests. They ultimately found the monkey B virus in the patient’s blood and saliva, China’s CDC said. They were unable to save him from the disease.

It was an unusual discovery for health officials in China, where doctors have never documented the virus in humans before.

The monkey B or herpes B virus commonly infects macaques, and fewer than 100 cases of human transmission have been recorded worldwide since 1932, the Washington Post reports. The disease is quite deadly when it does jump to people, attacking the central nervous system and killing the patient about 70-80 per cent of the time if left untreated.

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Scientists, researchers and veterinarians are the most common victims of the disease, and it usually spreads from bites, scratches or exposure to brain and spinal cord tissues, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Most cases of the virus have been detected in North America, but that’s likely because doctors there are more aware of its existence, according to Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease expert in Japan who spoke to the Washington Post.

The risk of human-to-human transmission is “minimal” but there has been one documented case of it in the past, according to China’s CDC.

The health agency also sounded the alarm about the virus, saying that it “might pose a potential zoonotic threat to the occupational workers,” particularly those who come in contact with monkeys.

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