Carefully get rid of mice to lessen risk of Hantavirus


April 12, 1994|By Dr. Genevieve Matanoski | Dr. Genevieve Matanoski,Medical Tribune News Service

In the past year a strange respiratory ailment has claimed at least 49 victims in different parts of the United States. This disease, caused by the Hantavirus, first gained notice when members of the Navajo nation were stricken by it last summer. Several died.

Since then, researchers have tracked Hantavirus throughout the United States. Because of its nondescript symptoms, researchers cannot truly gauge how many people may have contracted this sometimes deadly disease.

Cases have been documented in Kansas, Florida, Louisiana, and, most recently, in Rhode Island. Although the incidence of Hantavirus certainly does not constitute an epidemic, certain precautions need to be taken, especially by those who either live rural areas or spend time in parts of the country where the deer mouse is common.

In order to understand the origin and nature of the Hantavirus, I turned to national expert Gregory Gurrie Glass, assistant professor of Immunology and Infectious Disease at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, who has followed the Hantavirus around the country.

Q: Is the Hantavirus a new disease?

A: No, as nearly as we can tell, Hantavirus has been around as long as there have been rodents. It has been recognized in Asia for some time.

There are also different types of Hantavirus. They share common biological characteristics and all belong to the Bunya family of viruses.

Q: What kind of Hantavirus do we have in the United States?

A: We have a number of them. A common form is carried by Norway rats. Hantavirus came to the attention of the Western world when United Nations troops were struck by it during the Korean War. Most Hantaviruses cause a variety of symtoms, including kidney problems and hemorrhagic fever.

One type causes severe respiratory problems and can cause death. This is the Hantavirus that was isolated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during the outbreak in the Four Corners area of the United States last year. The Four Corners area is the region where the corners of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah meet.

Q: How did the doctors know what it was?

A: Diagnosing Hantavirus was quite difficult. The symptoms of the victims in the Four Corners area were different from those experienced by people with Hantavirus in Asia and other parts of the world. In the Four Corners area, victims had flu-like symptoms that quickly degenerated into shock.

The victims had antibodies to Hantavirus, but did not react strongly. Plus, there are few rodents that were known to inhabit that part of the country.

CDC's logical conclusion was that it was dealing with a new strain of Hantavirus carried by a different rodent. In this case, the deer mouse was found to be the culprit. The range of the deer mouse in the United States is from the California coast to the Appalachian Mountains and from Canada to Mexico. They are prevalent in rural areas.

Q: What are the symptoms of this new Hantavirus?

A: People with Hantavirus usually have a low fever and other flu-likesymptoms. Their muscles ache; they may have headaches other non-specific complaints. These symptoms may go on for several days followed by a rapid decline as fluid fills the lungs.

Q:Do I need to worry about getting this disease?

A: Anyone who lives in a rural area or who may have a country home or who vacations in the outdoors certainly needs to be aware of the possibility of Hantavirus. It is found in the urine and feces of the deer mouse and can only be contracted by close contact between humans and rodents. Reasonable precautions should make most homes and campsites safe.

Q: What are those precautions?

A: If you have a mouse infestation in a rural or semi-rural area, try to get rid of it to the best of your ability. First, air the closed rooms well and vacate the room for several hours while it airs. Hantavirus can be airborne, but the virus does not fare well outside of the rodent. Do not sweep or vacuum droppings, since that may make the virus airborne.

The best way to treat your living area is to disinfect it while wearing rubber gloves. Use either bleach or a household disinfectant and carefully disinfect the area.

In cabinets or on surfaces, wipe the area carefully, again with disinfectant. Put the towels you have used in a plastic bag and dispose of it by burning or burying. When you are done, wash the gloves in disinfectant while they are still on your hands. When you remove the gloves, wash your hands.

Try to eliminate mouse infestations by using kill traps. Spray the trap with disinfectant before you dispose of it.

Most important, remember that there is no need to panic. There have been relatively few documented cases of the disease in this country, and, with a few precautions, you can safely enjoy any rural setting.

Dr. Genevieve Matanoski is a physician and epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health. She is a VTC founding director of the school's Institute for Women's Health Research and Policy.

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