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State Asks FDA to Expand Use of Drug in Fighting Mystery Illness

June 12, 1993

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) _ A woman who died of a mystery illness spent five hours at one hospital before being taken to the only one in the state where a drug effective against the suspected virus is available, a newspaper reported. The drug, ribavirin, is considered the best hope against rodent-borne hantavirus, the suspected cause of an outbreak tentatively linked to 14 deaths in four states, the Albuquerque Journal reported Friday.

The drug has been available in New Mexico only at University Hospital in Albuquerque because of federal regulations, the newspaper said. Health officials are trying to win approval for expanded use of the unlicensed drug.

The 22-year-old Navajo woman died Wednesday. The Farmington Daily Times identified her as Brenda Benally of Farmington, an employee of a day care center in the northwestern New Mexico city.

She came to San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington by ambulance and was transferred by helicopter to University Hospital in Albuquerque five hours later, San Juan hospital spokeswoman Connie Dinning said. The woman died within hours at University Hospital.

Health officials haven’t said if she received ribavirin in Albuquerque before she died.

The Food and Drug Administration approved ribavirin, an unlicensed drug that prevents the virus from growing, for use only on a case-by-case basis in New Mexico, which means it can be used only with the approval of a licensed researcher.

Dr. Frederick Koster of University Hospital is the only licensed researcher in the state, said state Health Secretary Michael Burkhart.

New Mexico is asking the FDA to give doctors at other hospitals limited amounts of the drug and the status of licensed researchers so they can approve its use.

The helicopter flight from San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington to Albuquerque takes a little more than an hour. Most victims of the illness have been treated initially there or at hospitals in Gallup, Crownpoint, Shiprock or Fort Defiance, Ariz.

″What we’re trying to do is to get supplies out to those places,″ Burkhart said Thursday.

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