A mystery killer virus that has nestled in a remote Andean mountain village has doctors at a loss and local residents feeling like social outcasts.
The virus, which so far has neither name nor cure, has claimed four victims since January in El Bolson, a village wedged in a wooded valley, 1,100 miles south of Buenos Aires.
Residents fear the picturesque village, a refuge for aging hippies and renowned for its leisurely lifestyle, nature trails and homemade jams, will be starved of tourism revenue.
“We’re being treated like lepers,” said Claudio Levi, a 34-year-old artisan, in a telephone interview. “Last week a television crew arrived wearing masks to film what they thought was the Latin American plague.”
Levi said the few tourists who dare set foot in El Bolson bring their own food, won’t buy canned drinks and claim the problem stems from a lack of hygiene among locals.
Public health officials, who believe the virus is carried by rodents, say it could be a strain of the hantavirus that struck the southwestern United States two years ago.
“It can kill within 24 hours,” said Dr. Ana Briggiler, who is studying the virus at a health ministry laboratory in Buenos Aires.
“It has flu-like symptoms similar to the hantavirus detected in the United States except patients have serious breathing problems in the final stage of the illness,” she said.
Health officials, wearing gloves and masks, recently set 400 traps to catch rats for laboratory study.
“All we know is that it is carried in the urine and blood of rodents. So people must avoid rats and field mice at all costs and if they have to come into contact with them they should wear gloves,” Briggiler said.