Deer mice are the most common carriers of hantavirus.

by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

Hantavirus has been in the news lately. Several have died from hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, with as many as ten thousand thought to have been exposed while staying in Yosemite National Park this summer. Rats and mice give it to you, so it’s one of those diseases that’s sure to get more prevalent in any long-term disaster.

Hantavirus was officially discovered after a 1993 outbreak in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. It’s been around much longer but we just didn’t know what caused it.

That year 48 cases were reported. Since then there have been anywhere from 20 to 46 cases per year. Most are in the Western states, but there have been a few in the Midwest and Northeast, with one in Florida. Since the deer mouse is one of hantavirus’s major carriers, and is found all over the place, hantavirus is a risk anywhere.

How You Catch Hantavirus
What Carries Hantavirus?

The virus is carried by certain types of mice and rats. The deer mouse is the most common. It’s estimated that about 17 percent of deer mice in California carry hantavirus.

It takes one to five weeks after exposure to start getting sick. The symptoms are severe aching and fever, followed by trouble breathing. Fluid gets in the lungs. Since it’s a virus there is no treatment other than support. Many end up on a ventilator. An average of four out of 10 die. So avoidance is key.

Hantavirus doesn’t spread from person to person. As far as we know, you only get it from mice and rats if:

  1. The infected rodent bites you.
  2. You inhale the virus from fresh feces, urine, or saliva.
  3. You touch the feces, urine, or saliva and then touch your nose or mouth.
  4. You eat foods contaminated with rodent feces, urine, or saliva.
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Hantavirus Prevention

Of course do the usual things to keep rodents out of the house, like seal up cracks and holes, and keep human and animal food in sealed containers. The CDC recommends setting snap-like traps. Catching the rodents in a glue or live trap scares the animal, often causing it to urinate and spread the virus.

If you need to get rid of a dead mouse or rat, spray it first with a 10 percent chlorine solution (one part chlorine bleach to 10 parts water). Wait five minutes, and pick up the rodent with a paper towel or plastic or something else to keep your hands from touching it. Place it in a plastic garbage bag and seal.

If you’re cleaning up a storage area, shed, barn, basement, or any place rodents may have been nesting, put on an N95 mask if you have it (a simple mask available at pharmacies and hardware stores), and make sure it has a good seal around your mouth and nose. Use vinyl or latex gloves. Spray the area well with the bleach solution. After cleanup, throw away the mask, spray your gloves if you’re going to keep them, and wash your hands and clothes.

At this point, the odds of getting hantavirus are pretty low. But there are literally dozens of other illnesses you can get directly or indirectly from rodents. Getting in the habit of a little prevention is always a good thing.

Have any of you, or has someone you knew, ever caught a disease from an animal? And what do you do to keep the rodents away?

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Photo: CDC/James Gathany