The “mystery virus” which has caused the death of three people in South Africa has been provisionally identified as the rodent-borne Arenavirus, the government communications service BuaNews reported on Monday.

The report said the Arenavirus is related to the Lassa Fever Virus of West Africa. It causes
chronic infections in multimammate mice. Infected mice’s excretion contains the virus which can contaminate human food or house dust.

A joint statement by the National Institute for Communicable Disease (NICD) and the Department of Health explained that the Arenavirus is a disease spread from human to human through the contact of body fluids.

“Special precautions are required in nursing patients,” the statement said.

The finding follows blood samples being sent to Atlanta, in the United States to determine the cause of the deaths of three people who had been suspected of contracting Viral Haemorrhagic Fever.

The virus is similar to Lassa Fever, the department said. It has previously been found in rodents elsewhere in Africa, but has not been found to cause disease in humans other than in West Africa.

Further tests are needed to confirm the diagnosis by growing the virus in culture.

“It needs to be determined whether it is a previously unrecognised member of the Areaviruses, and what its distribution is. There is no indication as yet that Arenaviruses which cause disease in humans are present in South African rodents,” the NICD said.

The first victim, who had to be flown in from Zambia in a critical condition, was admitted to the Morningside Medi-Clinic in mid September. She died two days later.

About two weeks later, the paramedic who had flown in with the first victim, was admitted at the same clinic presenting the same symptoms.

A nurse, Gladys Mthembu died shortly afterwards. According to reports Mthembu’s family has been given a go-ahead to continue with the funeral arrangements as her bedroom had been cordoned off by health officials

Maria Mokubung, a cleaner at the Morningside Medi-Clinic, who also died last weekend has since been ruled out as a possible victim of the virus.

Meanwhile the Gauteng Health Department has confirmed that the three other patients, including a nurse’s female supervisor, who had been under observation for showing symptoms of the virus have been discharged.

They had been in contact with the nurse who died.

However, departmental spokesperson Phumelele Kaunda said there were two contacts that were still under active surveillance after being admitted for observation.

The one patient is a paramedic who had contact with the first patient and developed fever and flu-like symptoms. He was admitted initially in Flora Clinic and then transferred to Morningside Medi-Clinic with a diagnosis of kidney stones.

The other patient is a nurse who attended to the second patient and developed signs and symptoms similar to the first three patients. She is being treated in isolation and received the anti-viral medication, ribavirin. The patient is presently stable.