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Islanders Don’t Care For Medical Notoriety Residents Protest Naming Of Deadly Virus Strain After Wealthy Long Island Area

Fri., Jan. 6, 1995

Members of the American Legion wanted to keep the name of Legionnaires’ disease as a tribute to those who’d died.

And some residents of exclusive Lyme, Conn., thought the name Lyme disease might keep undesirables out.

But folks who live on Shelter Island want nothing to do with a rare strain of a deadly rodent-borne virus now called Shelter Island-1.

“Why should we have this dubious honor? I have friends in real estate who are totally freaking out,” said Pat Devlin, a retiree who lives in the wealthy resort between the eastern tips of Long Island, 90 miles east of New York City. “It’s definitely going to ruin the value of the property. The lifeblood of Shelter Island is tourism.”

Shelter Island Town Supervisor Huson “Hoot” Sherman said he is prepared to sue if he can’t get the name changed. Real estate agents told him, “‘When people hear this, they just won’t come,”’ he said.

A camping group from New York City immediately canceled a visit after researchers announced the discovery of the Shelter Island strain last month, Sherman said.

The strain was identified after David Rosenberg, a college student whose family owned a home on the island, died a year ago. It was the first fatality from a strain of hantavirus, a virus carried by rodents, in the Northeast.

Hantavirus first attracted attention after an outbreak in the Southwest last year that killed more than 70 people in the United States and Mexico.

Virus strains are routinely named for the location where they are isolated, said Dr. Ben Luft of University Hospital in Stony Brook on Long Island.

“It’s almost entirely used for scientific purposes to help people compare one virus to another,” said Luft, the lead researcher who helped investigate the Shelter Island strain.

But Luft said he and other researchers would try to reach a compromise that would satisfy the scientists and Shelter Island residents.

“I’m not here to antagonize anyone,” he said. “If we can rename this strain so that it still fits in with normal nomenclature, we will.”

He noted, however, that unlike Lyme Disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, names by which those illnesses are commonly known, no one would ever refer to the hantavirus as Shelter Island-1.

That name describes only a particular strain of the hantavirus, which itself is named for the Hantaan River in South Korea. Many strains have already been named for other locations, from Tula, Russia, to Sapporo, Japan, to Grand Junction, Colo.

One strain named for Muerto Canyon, N.M., was renamed “Sin Nombre” - Spanish for “without name” - because of protests from Navajos. Muerto Canyon is on the Navajo reservation.

Shelter Island wants the same consideration. Its white, sandy beaches and 2,200-acre wildlife-filled forest attract thousands in the summer, quadrupling the year-round population of 2,300 and providing business to motels, bed-andbreakfasts and restaurants.

Its houses range from humble cottages to million-dollar waterfront mansions. A summer mansion recently sold for $4 million.

“It does kind of put a damper on the tourism,” said Janet Hansen, who owns an antiques store on the island. “It’s all bad press. … I think they should rescind it with some kind of apology.”

Residents of Lyme, Conn., were not quite so upset when their town was immortalized by the tick-borne virus first identified there in 1979. Ruth Perry, the town clerk, recalled one elderly gentleman saying: “We didn’t mind. It kept people away.”

Others, she said, were proud that one of their neighbors, Polly Murray, had persisted in getting doctors to investigate why there were so many local cases of what had been misdiagnosed as arthritis. In 1976, Legionnaires’ disease killed 29 Legionnaires or their wives who had attended an American Legion convention in a Philadelphia hotel where the air conditioning spread the germ.

Legionnaires’ disease was named by The Associated Press during its coverage of the outbreak. But the American Legion ultimately endorsed the name.

In a letter to the Centers for Disease Control, the Legion said of the name: “This is to be a lasting tribute to those who died.”

Coxsackie virus is named for the New York town where an outbreak occurred in 1948. The illness was thought to be polio, but it disappeared a few weeks later and did not cause paralysis.

Coxsackie virus is now found everywhere. But Dr. Robert Chaloner, the town’s only doctor, said he still gets calls from all over the world asking: “What is it about Coxsackie, New York, that you grow the virus there?”


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