The Death Bug
updated 06/21/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 06/21/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Early in the 55-mile trip from their home in Liltlewater, N.Mex., to Gallup, Bahe too began gasping for breath. His sister-in-law stopped the car and called 911, then administered CPR until an ambulance rushed him to the Gallup Indian Medical Center. But it was too late. Bahe was dead. "A lot of us were at Florena's funeral," says Indian School computer teacher Guy Monroe. "Merrill's sister came in—and she was in considerable shock."
For the past three weeks, the entire Navajo Nation—175,000 residents scattered over a 26,000-square-mile area, mostly in Arizona and New Mexico—has been in shock. A terrible flu-like illness has struck the area, afflicting 21 people and killing 11, nine of whom were Navajos. Known at first as Unexplained Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (UARDS), the disease—which seems to prey on young people in robust health—begins with fevers, muscle aches, conjunctivitis and headaches. Then it turns deadly with savage speed: The lung lining fills with fluid, asphyxiating the victim, sometimes within half an hour.
For weeks the cause of the disease remained a mystery. Then, on June 4, the New Mexico Department of Health announced that serum samples taken from three disease victims showed antibodies to a virus belonging to the Hantaan family group—named after the Han River in South Korea—which is spread through the feces and urine of rodents. Three days later antibodies to the virus were found in a fourth victim.
The cluster of mysterious deaths was noticed first by Dr. Bruce Tempest, 57, chief of medicine at Gallup Indian Medical Center. Tempest, who knew of Florena Woody's death, was on call when Merrill Bahe was brought in. "It's a small hospital," he says. "So when it's a particularly tragic situation, people become aware of it right away."
When Tempest learned of an earlier similar death at the Gallup hospital and two others in Arizona, he was puzzled. He ordered tests to determine whether Bahe had succumbed to plague, which is endemic to the region. When results came back negative, Tempest contacted Dr. Gary Simpson, the state health department's medical director for infectious diseases. Department officials quickly began an investigation. Using the resources of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, the team made unexpectedly fast progress in identifying a suspect—the Hantaan virus. "We've been remarkably lucky," says Simpson.
Investigators can only speculate where the virus came from and how long it has been in the region. They believe that rodents in Navajo country may carry it and that virus-contaminated dust was inhaled when droppings were swept up. Indeed, there is an excess of rodent droppings this year because, as public-health officials learned from Navajo elders, there is an abundance of piñon nuts, a rodent diet staple. This is only the third time this century that there has been a year-round supply of the nuts. Says Dr. James Cheek of the Indian Health Service: "I believe the elders and medicine men might have been much closer than any of us to the cause of the disease."
Many Navajos, however, were not so cooperative. Information gathering, by investigators and the media, was thwarted by the Navajos' reluctance to discuss the dead until at least four days had passed and the deceased person—according to traditional belief—had safely journeyed to the next world. Still, people all over the Four Corners region—where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet—were, and are, frightened. Dr. Tempest says that at the height of the panic, the Gallup Medical Center saw 2,800 patients in one day—2,000 more than on a normal busy day. "People are afraid of each other," says Ervin James, a security guard at Pine Hill, a prosperous Navajo settlement on the Ramah Navajo Reservation. (According to state health officials, people in the region of the outbreak should avoid rodent droppings; when not possible, they should wear gloves and use disinfectant to remove the waste. Officials say the virus poses little danger to tourists. They should not, however, attract rodents by leaving food out.)
News of deaths from the mystery disease traveled quickly. Kimberly Bartlett, 13, of lyanbito, near Gallup, was attending a party at Red Rock Slate Park when she collapsed. She was dead the next day. Henry Henio Jr., 21, an aspiring forest-fire fighter living in Pine Hill, was seen by his friend Tony Jake Jr. "shopping with his fiancée at the minimall." The next day he too was gone.
Ragna Halldorsdottir Hooks, 58, is a story in herself. One of her uncles was president of Iceland, but Ragna gave up everything—wealth and social position—for the love of an American G.I. named Douglas Hooks. In 1979 she followed him lo the mountains of western New Mexico, where they made a life in an isolated double-wide trailer a mile from the nearest paved road. In 1982, after Douglas died, the couple's children tried to get Ragna to leave for her own safety. But, says her daughter Edna Yeomans, "she seemed bound to that mountain because of Daddy." After five days in the hospital, Ragna died, apparently from the virus. On May 28 her children buried Hooks in native Icelandic dress next to her husband.
Merrill Babe and Florena Woody were bound by love too. By senior year at the Santa Fe Indian School, says teacher Guy Monroe, "they were shadows of each other." Florena, says Monroe, "was always smiling and bubbly." She wanted to be a nurse. Merrill was one of the top runners in New Mexico. He was also a leader. "He was one of those rare kids," says Monroe, "who can do anything, who was able lo move between the two worlds—the Navajo world and the White world."
Since graduating in 1992, Bahe had been studying computerized drafting at Crownpoint Institute of Technology. He was living with Woody in Liltlewater. In addition to rearing their son, the couple—barely out of adolescence themselves—were looking after the children of one of Woody's sisters.
Four days after Florena died, Merrill—according to custom—visited the Indian School to collect donations from friends to pay for her funeral. Several days later the Bahe family came to the school to collect for Merrill. Now the community is pulling together once more. It is establishing a scholarship fund that one day will send Florena and Merrill's son, Maurice, to the Indian School his parents attended.
MICHAEL HAEDERLE and JOSEPH HARMES on the Navajo Indian Reservation and in Santa Fe