Local health officials warn of hantavirus risk
Before you start sweeping up dust as part of your annual spring cleaning, be aware that health officials are warning about this year’s first case of hantavirus in Colorado.And because of a wet winter and wet early spring, the mice that spread the disease may be extra active this year.”It’s off-season, so people are traveling, cleaning and opening up old cabins,” said Nancy MacKenzie of Pitkin County Environmental Health. “And there were a lot of mice around last fall in the valley.”Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome is carried by deer mice, which live in the Roaring Fork area and throughout rural areas of Colorado. The virus is shed in the mice’s urine and feces, according to John Pape, an epidemiologist specializing in animal-related diseases for the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment.Humans are infected when they inhale dirt and dust contaminated with deer mice urine or feces. Stirring up dust in spaces that might have been infested with rodents – like barns, garages, sheds or trailers – could put people at risk.Last year there were four hantavirus cases in Colorado, including one death. MacKenzie said although she has seen plenty of deer mice around her own home in Woody Creek, the disease has never been reported in this county.A couple of years ago someone was diagnosed with the virus in Glenwood Springs after coming in contact with a mice-infested trailer. The first Colorado case this year was in La Plata County.Deer mice are brown on top and white underneath, with large ears relative to the size of their head. In comparison, house mice are all gray and have small ears.Cases of the virus can occur at any time of the year, but they’re more common in the spring and summer, as the weather warms and foliage becomes more abundant, according to the state health department.”You have to be careful in confined space, to air it out first and not just start sweeping,” MacKenzie said. “Although not many people get the virus, it does have a high fatality rate.”Early symptoms of the virus include fever, headache, muscle pain, nausea and vomiting. Coughing and shortness of breath usually develop within one to five days, and the primary symptom of the virus is difficulty breathing when fluid builds up in the lungs.That condition can progress to respiratory failure, and there is no effective drug treatment for the disease. Early admission to a hospital is important, according to the state health department.The department recommends airing out rodent-infested structures that have been closed for more than a month and spraying mouse droppings, nest materials or carcasses with a mixture of bleach and water. For more information on hantavirus, visit http://www.cdphe.state.co.us/dc/zoonosis/hanta/hantafaq.html.Locally, MacKenzie said she can answer questions about the virus. Call her at the Pitkin County Environmental Health Department at 920-5076.Naomi Havlen’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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