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Hantavirus prompts warning

Aspen Times Staff Report

Colorado health officials are again warning citizens in rural areas to avoid exposure to hantavirus, a deadly respiratory disease spread by deer mice.

The hantavirus death of an 18-year-old San Luis Valley man this month underscores the need for taking precautions while doing spring cleaning anywhere where mice may be present. The virus is often spread to humans by dust inhaled while cleaning areas where deer mice and mouse droppings exist.

Though cases are not common, hantavirus results in death in nearly half of all cases. Prevention is important, because no effective treatment exists, according to health officials. When hantavirus infection is suspected, it’s important to get the victim to a hospital quickly for careful monitoring and treatment of symptoms.

The disease begins with fever, severe body aches, a headache and vomiting. Within one to five days, respiratory problems develop. The victim may have a cough or difficulty breathing, and the lungs fill with fluid.

Nancy MacKenzie, of the Pitkin County Environmental Health Department, said the disease can take up to 40 days to develop. Anyone who develops flu-like symptoms and who may have been exposed to hantavirus should tell a doctor about the possible exposure to the disease, MacKenzie advised.

The fluid that forms in the lungs is an immune system reaction as the body tries to fight off the infection, MacKenzie said. Therefore, a healthier person may actually experience more more fluid than a less healthy individual.

No cases have been seen in children under age 11 this point, MacKenzie said. “So, hopefully, kids don’t get it,” she said.

John Pape, a state Health Department epidemiologist who specializes in animal-related diseases, noted in a press release that all cases in Colorado have been in rural areas.

Deer mice, which carry hantavirus, are brown with a white underside, and have large ears. Deer mice are not found in cities. House mice – gray mice with small ears – are found in urban areas and don’t carry the disease.

MacKenzie said tests done on deer mice show that between 40 and 50 percent of deer mice in Colorado carry the virus, though mice don’t seem to be affected by it. The virus is spread by the rodents’ droppings.

A number of precautions can be taken to minimize the risk of hantavirus infection.

Make buildings rodent-proof.

Make homes and work areas unattractive to rodents by keeping kitchen areas clean and storing all food in rodent-proof containers.

Store woodpiles at least 100 feet from a house, and eliminate brush piles and junk where mice hide.

Use caution when cleaning out enclosed areas such as trailers, cabins, barns and sheds. Ventilate well before cleaning. Avoid dust by spraying down dirty areas with a mixture of bleach and water. A proportion of one cup bleach to one gallon of water is recommended.

Use rubber gloves to pick up saturated waste, including nesting materials and dead mice. Double bag the waste in plastic bags, and bury or place in garbage cans for landfill disposal.

Disinfect gloves with bleach and water solution before removing. Wash hands afterward.

In cases of severe infestation, use a rubber face mask with a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter.

For more information, contact MacKenzie at the Pitkin County Environmental Health Department, 920-5076.

The Colorado Health Department has a recorded hantavirus hotline, (303) 692-2267.

Answers to frequently asked questions can also be found at http://www.cdphe.state.co.us/dc/hantafaq.html


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