Is Hantavirus Hiding Near You?

Deer mouse, image courtesy of CDC

Late this past summer, the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) issued a hantavirus exposure warning to people who had visited Yosemite National Park in California from June to August of this year. By mid-September, there were three confirmed deaths related to the virus and six people were infected but survived.

Hantavirus, which causes hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS), is spread by many types of mice, but particularly by the deer mouse, cotton rats and rice rats in the southeastern part of the United States and by the white-footed mouse in the northeast.

According to the CDC, the number of reported HPS cases each year varies from as low 11 in 2001 to as high as 48 in 1993, the first year records were kept. There were 24 reported cases in 2011.

How is hantavirus transmitted?

The virus exists in the urine and feces of infected rodents and, when stirred up, fills the air with contaminated droplets. These droplets are transmitted when the droplets are breathed in by humans. It is also possible to contract the virus by touching contaminated material (such as nesting) and then touching the face or mouth.

Hantavirus cannot be transmitted to humans through domestic pets nor by domesticated rodents, like hamsters or guinea pigs. It also cannot be transmitted from person to person, through touch or intimate contact.

Preventing infection

Every spring and early summer, people who own cabins and cottages dig in and clean, preparing for the summer months ahead. What they may not know is that rodents carrying the hantavirus may have taken up residence in or around the building. If this is so, the people may breathe in the virus. The same holds true for barns and other outbuildings.

Anyone working in a potentially contaminated area, including attics and crawlspaces, should take precautions to avoid touching or breathing in the virus. They should:

  • Wear rubber, latex, or vinyl gloves.
  • Wear a filter mask (not the same as a dust mask).
  • Prevent stirring up dust. Instead, wet down the area with a disinfectant or a one part bleach nine parts water solution.
  • Not sweep or vacuum. Wipe up with a disposable product, such as paper towels, and place in a plastic bag. Seal and dispose of according to local by-laws.
  • Clean any surface that has come into contact with the mice, including carpet, furniture, drawers, etc.
  • Disinfect gloves before taking them off.
  • Wash hands well after removing the gloves.

In Yosemite, the culprits were insulated tent cabins in the Curry Village camping area. The deer mice had nested into the double walls, causing the air to become contaminated.

Campers and hikers are warned not to sleep on the bare ground and to avoid rodent burrows.

Signs of HPS

Early signs of a HPS are very similar to having the flu: fatigue, fever, muscle ache in the thighs, hips, back, and shoulders. Some people may experience headaches and dizziness, as well as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal pain.

Because these symptoms are vague, it is important to report any possible contact with rodents or rodent droppings. It can take anywhere from a one to six weeks for symptoms to appear.

Later symptoms of HPS occur four to 10 days after the initial symptoms. They include coughing and severe shortness of breath.

Treatment of HPS

Currently, there is no treatment for the virus. If needed, patients will be kept in intensive care and placed on a ventilator for respiratory support until they can breathe on their own again. There is a 38 percent rate of death associated with HPS.

The best treatment is prevention – knowing that the virus is out there and protecting yourself from exposure.

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