Take precautions to avoid hantavirus

By Mark Salley

Special to The SUN

State health officials announced late last week that the hantavirus case in La Plata County has been confirmed. That case resulted in the death of a La Plata County resident.

Coloradans are warned to avoid hantavirus exposure while cleaning cabins or other buildings that were closed up for winter.

Hantavirus is a serious and potentially fatal respiratory disease carried by deer mice. When cleaning out rodent-infested structures, people can breathe in dirt and dust contaminated with deer mouse urine and feces and become infected. There have been two confirmed cases of hantavirus in the state this year; both were fatalities.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has documented more than 90 cases of hantavirus since it began tracking the disease in 1993. Approximately 40 percent of individuals with the disease have died from it. Most Colorado hantavirus cases happen when people are exposed to deer mouse urine and feces in and around their residences. Unlike house mice, deer mice have large ears and eyes and white undersides of their body and tail.

“Be particularly careful where there is evidence that mice have been in and around buildings or wood or junk piles,” said Dr. Jennifer House, state public health veterinarian at the department. “An increase in the number of mice around a home often precedes a person getting the disease.”

Ample vegetation for rodents to eat can attract deer mice and other rodent populations. An increase in rodents can result in increased exposure to diseases rodents carry. Early spring and summer are when most human cases occur, but some people have been infected at other times of the year. People need to take precautions to prevent exposure to hantavirus before they begin cleaning structures that have evidence of rodent activity.

House advised Coloradans to ventilate structures before cleaning and spray any accumulation of dust, dirt and mouse droppings with a mixture of bleach and water.

“Never vacuum or sweep an area where a rodent infestation has been,” she emphasized. “If you have deer mice around your home, assume there is some risk of exposure to this virus. The more mice, the greater the risk. Some people have been infected by handling a single mouse.”


• Rodent-proof buildings by plugging holes or other mouse entryways. Conduct year-round rodent control, or hire a professional exterminator.

• Keep indoor areas clean, especially kitchens. Dispose of garbage in sealed containers.

• Store food in rodent-proof containers, including food for pets, livestock and birds.

• Remove rodent hiding places near your home, such as wood, junk and brush piles. Store firewood at least 100 feet from your house. Keep vegetation around the house well-trimmed.

Hantavirus symptoms

Hantavirus normally begins with fever, body aches, headache and vomiting. The symptoms begin from one to six weeks after exposure.

At first there are no respiratory symptoms. However, the illness can progress quickly to respiratory distress within one to five days. People may have a dry cough and difficulty breathing caused by their lungs filling with fluid.

Because no effective treatment exists for the disease, House emphasized prevention as the key.

“When hantavirus infection is suspected, early admission to a hospital for careful monitoring is critical. Treatment of symptoms and supportive therapy can be provided in the hospital,” House said. “If you become ill with these symptoms, it is important to tell your physician about possible exposures to deer mice or rodent-infested environments.”