A paper published in the online journal PLoS Pathogens, says it is not clear how the Lujo virus came to infect a total of five people starting last September, but it comes from a family of viruses found in rodents.
“This one is really, really aggressive,” wrote Dr. Ian Lipkin, a Columbia University epidemiologist who was involved in the discovery.
Lujo appears to have first infected a female travel agent who lives just outside the Zambian capital of Lusaka. She was airlifted to Johannesburg, South Africa, as her fever-like illness became life-threatening.
She later died, but not before infecting a paramedic who treated her in Lusaka. He was also airlifted to Johannesburg, where three other health care workers also became infected. Only one survived.
The name Lujo stems from Lusaka and Johannesburg, the cities where it was first identified.
The virus spreads from person to person through contact with infected body fluids. It has symptoms similar to Ebola — bleeding, fever, shock, coma and organ failure.
The antiviral drug ribavirin may have saved one of the infected nurses, who fully recovered.
Genetic sequencing at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta determined the virus belongs to the arenavirus family, a distant relative to Lassa fever, another disease found in Africa.
Diagram: Center for Infection and Immunity, Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University.