Fri May 30, 2014

Spring Cleaning? Protect Yourself From Hantavirus

As the weather warms up and people begin cleaning cabins or other buildings that have been closed during the winter, Colorado health officials are warning about the risk of hantavirus exposure.

The rare, but serious and sometimes fatal respiratory disease is carried by deer mice. People usually become infected by breathing in dirt and dust contaminated by urine and feces.

Late spring and early summer is normally when health officials see the first few cases.

“It’s related to the fact that the mice population is actually increasing,” says Dr. Jennifer House, state public health veterinarian at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. “And then, people are also opening up buildings that have been closed for the winter – cabins and other structures – where the mouse population may have lived for the winter.”

Coloradans are urged to be especially cautious where there is evidence that mice have been in or around buildings or wood piles.

House says it’s difficult to it’s difficult in any given year to predict how many cases the state will see, but the mouse population is on the rise in 2014.

“With the rain last year and our snowmelt, it is possible that we have more vegetation that could accommodate the mouse population,” House says.

Health officials have already seen three cases of hantavirus in Colorado – compared to two cases in 2013. One person has died.

Because there is currently no effective treatment for the disease, House says it’s critical to take precautions before cleaning structures where mice have been active.

“Rodent-proof any buildings you can – and do that year-round, so that rodents don’t actually develop habitat in the structures you plan on using,” House advises.

Structures where rodent activity is found can be ventilated before cleaning – for a week if possible, House says. Areas of mouse droppings can be sprayed with a mixture of bleach and water to mitigate the risk.

Hantavirus symptoms [.pdf]:

  • Disease normally begins with fever, body aches, headache and vomiting
  • Symptoms usually begin one to six weeks after exposure
  • As illness progresses, people may have a dry cough and difficulty breathing

House advises individuals who experience symptoms and have been working around mice or rodent-infested properties to mention that to health care providers.

Precautions [.pdf]:

  • 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, and dispose of garbage in sealed containers
  • Clean out potential hiding places for rodents such as wood, junk and brush piles; store firewood at least 100 feet from the structure