What is hantavirus, and how can you avoid it?
It’s a rare disease. But Garfield County is a high-risk area, and hantavirus kills nearly 40 percent of the people it inflicts.
Knowing a few key things about hantavirus can do a lot to keep you safe.
First, to contract the disease you have to come into contact with saliva, urine or droppings of certain rodents, said Danielle Yost, a communicable disease investigator for Garfield County Public Health.
Usually hantavirus cases are discovered after someone has cleaned out their shed, garage or cabin, though it can be contracted in a house, too. It is often contracted from breathing in dust that’s been stirred up into the air by sweeping or vacuuming.
“Likely in someplace that hasn’t seen the light of day in a while,” said Yost.
There are no known cases of the disease being passed from person to person.
A few rodents in our area can carry it, but in Garfield County, the otherwise-adorable deer mouse is the most likely culprit to transmit hantavirus.
This disease is made even more dangerous by its long incubation period, which can last as long as four weeks. This makes it difficult for people to connect their symptoms to instances when they might have been exposed to mouse excretions. A person might experience the early symptoms — fatigue, fever, muscle aches, headaches, dizziness, chills — and simply identify these as flu-like symptoms rather than thinking back to when they cleaned out their garage a month ago, said Yost.
But four to 10 days later, these symptoms turn into coughing and shortness or breath, which is actually from a person’s lungs filling up with fluid, she said.
“They go downhill pretty quickly.”
Hantavirus has a fatality rate of about 38 percent, and there is no specific treatment for the disease. Medical measures taken are largely to make the patient comfortable while his or her body fights through it, and they tend to be incubated because they can’t breathe on their own, said Yost.
Still, seeking medical attention early on ensures a better chance of recovery.
As a communicable disease investigator, Yost goes into action after a local case is reported, and she works to assess and contain the risk of more people being exposed to the disease.
Investigators gather information from the healthcare provider and the patient, establish a timeline and gather as many details as possible about the exposure. Sometimes they go to the site of the exposure and assess the risk of another person contracting the disease.
“Like all communicable diseases that we investigate, the more information we are able to obtain, the more we are able to identify potential sources of risks and provide guidance and education for Garfield County residents,” said Yvonne Long, Garfield County Public Health executive director.
Due to privacy regulations in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the public health department can’t discuss a patient’s personal information, said Long.
But Garfield County Public Health has also had trouble getting much more information about this recent case, such as where in Garfield County it was contracted or what that person was doing when he or she contracted it.
This patient, who is a Garfield County resident, was discharged from the hospital, which in itself should indicate the person’s health is improving, said Yost. The patient is currently not in the area, and the department has had trouble getting contact information for this person.
“While hantavirus is a concern throughout [Colorado], and with the onset of spring and cleaning of barns, cabins, storage sheds, etc., potential exposure can occur in multiple settings, and often a specific setting or activity cannot be identified,” Long said.
The biggest way to avoid contracting hantavirus when you’re cleaning out a shed or a cabin is to avoid sweeping droppings. Yost recommends first ventilating the area, then wetting down surfaces. Use a solution of a cup and a half of bleach and one gallon of water. Wet the area you’re going to clean, wait five minutes, then make sure to wear gloves when cleaning and safely discard the contaminated materials, she said.
There aren’t many strong trends in these cases, said Yost, but the underlying theme in all of them are people cleaning up without taking the proper precautions.
“The only thing in common is that they see droppings and sweep them right up,” she said.
Still, these cases are rare. Hantavirus cases in Garfield County aren’t so frequent as to happen every year. In the last five years, Yost estimated the county has seen five or six cases.
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