Venezuela Indian Deaths
Charles Briggs  /  AP
In this photo released by UC Berkeley anthropologist Charles Briggs on Aug. 7, 2008, Warao Indians grieve over the body of Elbia Rivas, who died from an unidentified illness, in Barraquitas, Venezuela. The illness, suspected to be caused by rabies spread by vampire bats, has killed at least 38.
updated 8/8/2008 8:59:11 PM ET 2008-08-09T00:59:11

At least 38 Warao Indians have died in remote villages in Venezuela, and medical experts suspect an outbreak of rabies spread by bites from vampire bats. Laboratory investigations have yet to confirm the cause, but the symptoms point to rabies, according to two researchers from the University of California at Berkeley and other medical experts.

The two UC Berkeley researchers — the husband-and-wife team of anthropologist Charles Briggs and public health specialist Dr. Clara Mantini-Briggs — said the symptoms include fever, body pains, tingling in the feet followed by progressive paralysis, and an extreme fear of water. Victims tend to have convulsions and grow rigid before death.

Dr. Charles Rupprecht, chief of the rabies program at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, agreed with their preliminary diagnosis.

"The history and clinical signs are compatible with rabies," Rupprecht told The Associated Press on Friday. "Prevention is straightforward: Prevent bites and vaccinate those at risk of bites."

Venezuelan health officials are investigating the outbreak and plan to distribute mosquito nets to prevent bat bites and send a medical boat to provide treatment in remote villages on the river delta, Indigenous Peoples Minister Nicia Maldonado said Thursday, according to the state-run Bolivarian News Agency.

Outbreaks of rabies spread by vampire bats are a problem in various tropical areas of South America, including Brazil and Peru, Rupprecht said.

He said researchers suspect that in some cases environmental degradation — including mining, logging or dam construction projects — may also be contributing to rabies outbreaks.

Humans an 'easy meal'
"Vampire bats are very adaptable," Rupprecht said. And when their roosts are disrupted or their normal prey grow scarce, "Homo sapiens is a pretty easy meal."

More study is needed to confirm through blood or other samples from victims that it is the rabies virus in Venezuela, and to determine what other factors may be contributing, he and other researchers say.

At least 38 Warao Indians have died since June 2007, and at least 16 have died since the start of June 2008, according to a report the Berkeley researchers and indigenous leaders provided to Venezuelan health officials this week.

One village, Mukuboina, lost eight of its roughly 80 inhabitants, and all the victims were children, Briggs said. All victims throughout the area died within two to seven days from the onset of symptoms, he said.

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During a study trip Briggs and Mantini-Briggs made through 30 villages in the Orinoco River delta, relatives said that the victims had been bitten by bats. The couple have worked among the Warao in Delta Amacuro state for years and were invited by indigenous leaders to study the outbreak.

'Monster illness'
"It's a monster illness," said Tirso Gomez, a Warao traditional healer who said the indigenous group has never experienced anything similar.

Mantini-Briggs, a Venezuelan former health official, said she was surprised to find many Warao villages now have cats — a new development. "The Waraos told us it was because there were too many bats that were biting the children," she said.

Another tropical medicine expert, Dr. Daniel Bausch of Tulane University in New Orleans, agreed the symptoms and accounts suggest rabies transmitted by bats, and if confirmed, "probably a vaccination campaign would be in order."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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