Borna virus fatal in humans - risk especially for cat owners

Borna virus fatal in humans - risk especially for cat owners

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Deadly Borna virus infections in humans are becoming increasingly common - spreading larger than previously thought

Although the Borna virus is rather rare, it can have fatal consequences in humans. For a long time, virus infection was only known in farm animals. Evidence in humans now shows that the virus can also be transmitted to humans. According to the latest findings, cat owners in particular are affected.

For a long time, Borna disease was only known from farm animals. Now new evidence confirms: The virus also causes deaths in humans in Germany. The risk for cat owners could be particularly high. In Germany, far more people have died from infection with so-called Borna viruses in recent years than previously known.

Pathogen detected in deceased people

The pathogen was detected in Bavaria in brain samples from deceased patients, researchers from the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut (FLI) and the University of Regensburg report in the specialist journal "The Lancet Infectious Diseases".

In total, at least 14 people have been proven to have died of brain inflammation since 1995. The scientists date the latest known Borna case at the end of 2019. An eleven-year-old girl died in the process. To what extent the virus could be behind brain inflammation with an unknown cause is so far unclear.

Infection route often unknown

The scientists had examined brain samples from 56 patients from Bavaria who had been diagnosed with brain inflammation between 1999 and 2019. No reason for the disease was found in 28, nine of these affected had died. Borna Disease Virus 1 (BoDV-1) was detected in seven of these nine people. Regardless, there were two other confirmed infections.

All cases occurred in Bavaria and were diagnosed at the Regensburg University Hospital, in Erlangen or in the Munich area, as Martin Beer, head of the Institute for Virus Diagnostics at FLI, told the German Press Agency.

Five other evidence reports from 2018 and 2019 were already known. Among other things, three people were infected with the fatal disease by donating an organ because they had received a kidney or the liver of an infected person from Bavaria. Only one of them survived the disease, but with serious health consequences.

Borna virus in farm animals

It has been known for a long time that farm animals such as horses and sheep can contract the Borna disease and die from it. BoDV-1 occurs in Germany in Bavaria, Thuringia, Saxony-Anhalt and neighboring parts of neighboring federal states. Cases of Borna disease in horses, sheep and other farm animals also regularly occur in Austria, Switzerland and Liechtenstein. "It's an old illness, but you've always looked wrong," Beer said.

The only known reservoir of the pathogen is the field shrew (Crocidura leucodon), in which the infection does not cause any severe symptoms. The mice excrete the virus in urine, faeces and saliva - this can then infect other animals and, in rare cases, humans.

"Infection from person to person or from horse to person is naturally excluded," Beer said. He spoke of so-called cul-de-sac hosts who carry the virus but do not spread it further. The infection is likely to be fatal very often in both farm animals and humans.

Those affected had close contact with animals

According to Beers, it is unclear how exactly the patients in Bavaria, who fell ill regardless of organ donation, became infected with the virus. Many would have had close contact with cats - who may have caught a shrew and brought it home. But that is just a hypothesis. According to the report in the journal, most of the 14 people affected had contact with animals, lived in rural areas, worked in agriculture or had been involved in outdoor activities.

Beer and his colleagues call on doctors in Borna to have patients with severe brain inflammation tested for the virus if the cause of the disease is unclear. So far, there is no obligation to register for the disease - according to Beers, however, this should change in March. There was no reason to panic, he emphasized. “I still expect isolated cases. The risk for the individual - even in Bavaria - is very low. ” There is currently no special therapy for the disease.

Flu-like and neurological symptoms

According to “Ärzteblatt”, the few infections known to date - with the exception of younger children - affect all age groups and both genders. According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) in Berlin, many of the well-known patients initially suffered from headaches, fever and a general feeling of illness. This is followed by neurological symptoms such as confusion, behavioral problems and speech and gait disorders, and in the further course often coma and death within days or a few weeks.

In addition to BoDV-1, there is also the Variegated Squirrel Bornavirus 1 (VSBV-1). This pathogen, which occurs in colored squirrels, is also transferable to humans, as has been known for some years. It was first demonstrated in three amateur breeders from Saxony-Anhalt who were treated with symptoms of inflammation of the brain in clinics from 2011 to 2013 and died. It was shown that representatives from the Bornavirus family can also infect humans, it said when the results were published in 2015. (sb / source: dpa)

Author and source information

This text corresponds to the specifications of the medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been checked by medical doctors.


  • Hans Helmut Niller, Klemens Angstwurm, Dennis Rubbenstroth, Kore Schlottau, Arnt Ebinger, et al .: Zoonotic spillover infections with Borna disease virus 1 leading to fatal human encephalitis, 1999-2019: an epidemiological investigation, in Lancet Infectious Diseases (published 07.01. 2020), The Lancet

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