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Weekly Alibi Hanta Virus

Words of Wisdom From the Weekly Alibi Staff Nurse

By Mike Ratchett

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998:  Since 1993, when the first case of hantavirus infection was officially reported, waking up in any sleepy Southwestern town with flu symptoms has taken on new meaning. Things have changed for people who would otherwise simply call in sick, pull their knees up to their chests and ride out the waves of nausea, cramps and body aches and for those unlucky enough to experience prolonged bouts of vomiting and diarrhea--in addition to the aforementioned visit to Miseryland--who might even visit their doctors for a definitive dose of Tigan and a piece of paper outlining the fun that awaits them on a clear liquids diet. Following the identification of fewer than 100 cases (in 20 states) of an illness that, until recently, was shrouded in mystery and misunderstanding, many of those same flu victims now worry that they may have something far more serious than the shits and pukes. Now, in the throes of technicolor yawns and monumental bowl busting, folks think back to that afternoon two weeks ago spent scrubbing baseboards in the attic or cleaning out the garage. They wish they knew what a damned deer mouse looked like. They wish they lived in Rochester. Paranoia, thy name is Hanta.

Let's put a few facts on the table right out of the gate so as not to give you the impression that I'm making light of a killer:

  • It is safe to estimate that at least half the people who contract hantaviruses will die of the illness.

  • It's common knowledge--and also fact--that most of the 20 states in which hantaviruses have been identified are Western states, particularly Southwestern.

  • Hantaviruses are carried by and transmitted to humans primarily by deer mice, although there is evidence that they are carried to a lesser degree by piñon mice, brush mice, cotton rats and Western chipmunks.

  • The viruses cause no outward symptoms in their rodent hosts and are shed in their saliva, urine and feces.

  • Human infection can occur when saliva and/or excreta are inhaled as aerosols originating directly from infected animals, through other direct contact with infected animals such as through a bite or handling with unprotected or broken skin and possibly through ingestion of contaminated food or water.

Hantavirus infection causes what is known as hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS) in humans, an illness characterized first by flu-like symptoms and later by those symptoms magnified in addition to increased difficulty in respiration. The difficulty in breathing is caused by fluid build-up in the lungs that quickly progresses to an inability to breathe at all, and ultimately, as you might have guessed, death.

But don't pack for upstate New York just yet. There are other facts about hantaviruses you should be aware of that might make the impending flu season less a hypochondriactic nightmare than it otherwise could be:

  • You're more likely to win the lottery than you are to become infected with a hantavirus--even if you live in the Southwest. Fewer than 50 cases are expected to be reported this year, due in large part to prevention efforts by informed, higher risk communities.

  • Hantaviruses, in nearly all cases, have been confined to rural areas of the Southwest.

  • Household pets, such as dogs and cats, are not known to be reservoir hosts for hantaviruses. (Although domestic animals may bring infected rodents into contact with humans.)

  • Fleas, ticks, mosquitoes and other biting insects are not known to have any role in the transmission of hantaviruses.

There currently exists no vaccine or cure for hantavirus infection or for HPS. Though your chances for becoming infected and contracting HPS are as slim as a hillbilly named Whitman, there are precautions you can take to further minimize risk:

  • Avoid contact with suspect rodents and droppings in the home and while hiking or camping.

  • Do not inhabit unused or abandoned dwellings.

  • Do not disturb rodent dwellings, burrows or dens.

  • Carefully inspect rural campsites and dwellings for rodent droppings and activity.

  • Avoid sleeping outdoors on bare ground or near woodpiles and other potential rodent dwellings.

  • Store foods in rodent-proof containers.

  • Have rodents professionally eliminated in all rural dwellings.

  • Wear rubber or latex gloves and an EPA-approved respirator mask when cleaning out or working in high-risk areas.

Although national Centers for Disease Control have reported safe the travel to and within all areas where hantaviruses have been identified and your general risk is small, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of mouse poop. If you suspect that you might have been infected and begin exhibiting any combination of the symptoms outlined in this article (especially difficulty in breathing), contact your doctor or public health clinic immediately and mention your exposure to rodents and/or droppings. While there is no cure, early detection offers the best chance for recovery.

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