How deadly hantavirus infects people; cases in Utah, northern Arizona

Hantavirus image with deer mouse, composite image St. George News

ST. GEORGE — Spring invites cleaning of places and spaces where mice may scurry unnoticed except for the droppings they leave behind and a bit of destruction wrought by their razor sharp teeth. If only that were all they leave behind, but it’s not always so.  Mice and their ilk can leave behind a hantavirus capable of infecting people with a serious disease – a disease that is sometimes fatal.

The disease, hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, or HPS, is most often contracted by breathing in hantavirus particles deposited by rodents. Deer mice, for example, are the most common carriers in woodland and desert areas like the Southwest. Once infected, the mice carry the virus without getting sick themselves.

As they prowl about, chew and nest, the mice shed the virus continuously through their droppings, urine and saliva. Their deposits dry and the virus can live for days, according to the Center for Disease Control. When the deposits are stirred up, the dried particles, complete with the virus, become airborne and a person breathing them can come down with the disease.

Recent cases

In Utah, there have been nine confirmed cases of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome in the past decade – three of them fatal, Southwest Utah Public Health Department spokesman David Heaton said. Two of those nine cases occurred in the Southwest Utah Public Health district, one in 2010 and the other in 2014, although neither of those were fatal.

This November 2014 photo shows the old Pine Valley Guard Station in the Pine Valley Recreation Area about 7.5 miles west of Interstate 15 off Exit 30 in Washington County. The building is now marked off limits with a sign warning it is contaminated with the hantavirus. Washington County, Utah, November 2014 | File photo, St. George News
This November 2014 photo shows the old Pine Valley Guard Station in the Pine Valley Recreation Area about 7.5 miles west of Interstate 15 off Exit 30 in Washington County. The building is now marked off limits with a sign warning it is contaminated with the hantavirus, Washington County, Utah, November 2014 | File photo, St. George News

In nearby Coconino County, Arizona, there have been five confirmed cases during the same period, two of them this year, according to the National Park Service.

The public safety concern gave rise to the park service closing the Grand Canyon’s Cave of Domes March 23 to investigate it as a possible source of exposure to the hantavirus. The closure has since been lifted, according to a park news release Wednesday.

The only public location identified as a potential source of exposure to the hantavirus in the southwest region of Utah is the Pine Valley Guard Station, Heaton said. It is located in the Pine Valley Recreation Area about 7.5 miles west of Interstate 15 off Exit 30.

The old building – originally built to accommodate a recreation guard in the area seasonally, and later open for use by recreationists as a cabin – is now marked off limits with a sign warning it is contaminated with the hantavirus.

But the most common exposure in the region comes on private property, Heaton said, in homes, garages, on decks and the like when people start cleaning and stirring up dust contaminated by the infected rodents. People are most likely to become exposed in springtime.

“Spring is the time of year,” Heaton said, “because people will start cleaning and stirring up dust. So if they clean up their trailer, or their woodpile, their shed, their garage, that’s when they stir up dust and breathe it in.”

There have been cases in the summertime, Heaton said, when people sleeping outside were exposed to a rodent that ran across them and had contact with them, although occurrences of people getting the disease that way are pretty rare. Usually it’s breathing in particles, most often in springtime, but sometimes during fall cleanings as well.

To date, HPS has not been found to spread from person to person, according to the Center for Disease Control.

Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome

The CDC lists early symptoms of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome as fatigue, fever and muscle aches, especially in the large muscle groups — thighs, hips, back and sometimes shoulders. About half of all HPS patients also experience headaches, dizziness, chills and abdominal problems, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal pain.

“Four to 10 days after the initial phase of illness, the late symptoms of HPS appear,” according to the CDC’s fact sheet on HPS. “These include coughing and shortness of breath, with the sensation of, as one survivor put it, a ‘… tight band around my chest and a pillow over my face’ as the lungs fill with fluid.”

Preventative measures

To prevent contracting hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, public health officials advise the following:

  • Bleach solution is the best remedy when rodent droppings or nests are found in and around the home or other buildings
    • Do not stir the area up by vacuuming or sweeping
    • Do spray the area liberally with a disinfectant, such as one part bleach to nine parts water, and allow it to soak for at least 15 minutes
    • After disinfecting, wear rubber gloves and use disposable materials such as paper towels or rags to clean
    • Finally, seal all materials in double plastic bags before disposal
  • When camping or recreating outside, do not sleep or spend time in close proximity to rodent nests, burrows or areas of heavy rodent activity
  • Do not make food or garbage easily available to rodents

Resources

Email: jkuzmanic@stgnews.com

Twitter: @JoyceKuzmanic  @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2016, all rights reserved.

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