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LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – First, it was COVID-19 that drove some Las Vegas scientists to the sewers.
Now, it’s monkeypox.
Turns out, what goes down the toilet can tell us a lot about diseases spreading in an area.
That’s how scientists at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas know how widespread the monkeypox virus is, even before the health department.
They were one of the first in the nation to study human waste to detect cases of the Omicron variant of coronavirus before any cases were officially reported in the area.
They’re doing it again with monkeypox, as the number of cases rises above 14,000 nationwide.
Dr. Edwin Oh, an associate professor at the UNLV School of Medicine, said they were the second in the nation, following San Francisco, to use a wastewater surveillance program to detect monkeypox.
“We’re seeing about something like three to 17 days in which an individual may be asymptomatic,” Dr. Oh said. “We’re not going to be able to see lesions on individuals during this time. But when we look into the wastewater, we’re going to be able to detect that virus there.”
Dr. Oh heads the UNLV wastewater surveillance program.
He and his students concentrate in areas where there may be a lot of people, such as schools, bars, shelters and hotels.
They use an automated machine to pull samples from the sewers.
Then, they head back to the lab for analysis.
“It’s a conversation that we have to have now and not necessarily wait until we have infections that are at the level of 70,000 or seven million before we start doing anything.”
They expect the amount of the virus will increase in the next month in the Las Vegas area.
“We have sort of had this sense of déjà vu again with COVID-19, right, in that there is this infectious disease that’s circulating,” Dr. Oh said. “We don’t really know too much about it, but using a program like this, we can at least track where this virus might be emerging in various communities.”
Right now, the CDC reports the most cases in New York with 2,744 and California with 2,663.
Wyoming is the only state right now to have zero reported cases.