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Medical machine can be lifesaver for hantavirus victims

The ECMO machine is used to treat hantavirus victims  
August 25, 1998
Web posted at: 10:26 p.m. EDT (0226 GMT)

From Correspondent Jennifer Auther

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (CNN) -- The hantavirus is one of the deadliest viruses known. While there is no cure or specific treatment for the infection, there is one machine that seems to save lives.

One week before she was hooked up to a life-saving medical device, Annie Merrian, 18, was cleaning a cabin in southwestern Colorado. Within days, she was drowning in serum from her own blood.

With definitive tests pending, doctors at the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque were all but sure she had contracted the potentially deadly hantavirus. But they needed to buy time.

"We do believe the ECMO can save critically ill patients with heart and lung failure from hantavirus," said the hospital's Dr. Mark Crowley.

Deer mice are trapped and tested by scientists  

The university hospital is the only center in the United States using ECMO, or extra-corporeal membrane oxygenation, to treat hantavirus.

Humans contract the virus by inhaling dried urine, saliva or droppings of infected deer mice.

"The problem is, the mortality rate is still too high," Crowley said. "It's still somewhere between 40 and 50 percent."

ECMO saves lives by taking over heart and lung function, pumping and oxygenating the blood while the body fights the virus. Patients are generally on ECMO for three to five days.

Suzanne Jackson is among the first to owe her life to the machine.

"It's about two-and-a-half years now, and I'm still processing the miraculousness of surviving," she said.

Four Corners

After renovating an old homestead in Northern New Mexico in 1995, Jackson began experiencing the flu-like symptoms.

"If we had not put her on ECMO when we did, I don't think she would have survived another hour," Crowley said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have confirmed 158 cases of hantavirus since 1993.

More than half were from the four-corners region of the Southwest where New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Arizona meet. In all, 29 states in the United States have reported cases of hantavirus.

Researchers are now trapping infected rodents, worried about an explosion in the population caused by El Nino rains. And this fall they will begin testing a vaccine in mice.

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