Protecting Yourself From Hantavirus

By:    Published: September 16, 2012

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During the summer of 2012, an outbreak of Hantavirus was reported among visitors of Yosemite National Park in California; there were 8 confirmed cases. Of the eight people that contracted Hantavirus while at Yosemite, 3 of those people have died. Hantavirus is a serious and potentially fatal disease that is contracted through exposure to rodent droppings, urine or saliva. Hantavirus is not exclusive to California or to Yosemite National Park; cases of Hantavirus have been reported across the United States.

What Is Hantavirus?

Hantavirus refers to a cluster of viruses that are contracted through exposure to rodent droppings, urine or saliva. The virus is carried by rodents and excreted through their secretions. One type of Hantavirus strain called Sin Nombre has been found in common deer mice living in North America. This particular strain of Hantavirus has been identified as the cause of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) in humans.

Know The Risks

Humans may be exposed to Hantavirus if they have come in contact with rodent secretions or contaminated areas that were once occupied by rodents carrying Hantavirus. Even if you cannot see rodent droppings, you run the risk of breathing in contaminated dust, thus becoming infected with Hantavirus. Your risk for Hantavirus increases when:

  • You clean or disturb contaminated areas in the garage, storage facility, workplace, home, etc.
  • You clean up rodent droppings or rodent nests.
  • You live or work in rodent infested environments.

Learn To Identify Rodents That Carry Hantavirus

It is wise to keep your distance from rodents and rodent droppings whenever possible. There are several types of rodents that carry strains of Hantavirus, some of which have yet to be identified and others that may act as hosts to different types of Hantavirus strains that can produce other serious conditions aside from HPS. The most common rodents living in the United States that are potential carriers of Hantavirus are:

  • Deer Mouse
  • Cotton Rat
  • Rice Rat
  • White-Footed Mouse

You can learn to identify these rodents by there characteristics and where they live in North America. They can be identified in the following ways:

Deer Mice

  • Have big eyes and ears
  • 2 to 3 inches in length from head to body, add additional 2 inches for tail
  • Depending on age, color may be gray to reddish brown
  • The underbelly is white and the tail has white sides
  • Found throughout North America
  • Prefers woodlands, but will inhabit other areas
  • May carry Hantavirus strain Sin Nombre (SNV)

Cotton Rats

  • 5 to 7 inches in length from head to body, add additional 3 inches for tail
  • Long, coarse fur, ranging in color from grayish brown to grayish black
  • Found in southeastern United States and Central and South America, prefers tall, grassy, overgrown areas and shrubs
  • May carry Hantavirus strain Black Creek Canal (BCCV)

Rice Rats

  • 5 to 6 inches in length from head to body, with a very long tail, up to 7 additional inches
  • Has soft grayish-brown fur, gray or light brown underbellies
  • Have light-colored feet
  • Found in the southeastern United States and Central America, prefers marshy areas and goes in water at times
  • My carry Hantavirus strain Bayou Virus (BAYV)

White-Footed Mouse

  • Resembles deer mouse
  • Head and body together approximately 4 inches, with a shorter than body tail
  • The fur is light brown to reddish brown on top, with white underbelly
  • The feet are white
  • Found all over the southern New England, the Mid-Atlantic and southern states, the Midwest and Mexico
  • Prefers wooded areas, but may inhabit open ground
  • May carry Hantavirus strain New York Virus (NYV)

For more information, be sure to check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the links below.

Rodent- Proof Your Home

The best way to protect your home is to prevent rodents from getting in. Be sure to use precautions when rodent proofing to decrease your exposure to Hantavirus. There are many ways to rodent-proof your home including:

  • Seal up any holes inside the home that rodents could enter through such as those around pipes, washing machine and dryer vents, around doors, around the fireplace, in the attic, basement or crawl space and near floor corners.
  • Seal up any holes outside the home such as those around windows, under doors, on or around the roof, cracks in the house foundation, around electrical, cable, gas or other incoming lines.
  • Set snap traps for rodents if you suspect that they are in your home.
  • Avoid glue and live traps, as they will likely scare rodents, causing them to urinate, possibly exposing you to Hantavirus.
  • Keep all food in heavy-duty containers that are airtight.
  • Clean up any spills or food messes right away, as to not attract rodents.
  • Store garbage in a can with a lid.
  • Keep all barbecue areas and grills clean.
  • If you keep compost, do so at least 100 feet away from the home.
  • Keep bird feeders away from the home.
  • Keep animal feed in heavy-duty containers with airtight lids.
  • Remove clutter and debris to prevent possible nesting sites.
  • Steam-clean carpet or upholstered furniture that may have been contaminated.

Take Precautions When Rodent-Proofing

When rodent-proofing your home or cleaning up rodent infested spaces, it is extremely important to use the necessary precautions. Your risk for exposure to Hantavirus is increased greatly if these precautions are not followed. Precautions include:

  • Always wear rubber or latex gloves before beginning to rodent-proof or clean up.
  • Never vacuum, dust or sweep up feces, as the dust will become airborne and can easily be inhaled.
  • If you see any dead rodents, droppings or suspected nests, the area must be drenched in a bleach solution before it is handled. To make the solution, mix 1-½ cups of bleach into 1 gallon of water. Allow the area to remain wet for at least 10 minutes before cleaning up.
  • Once the area is thoroughly wet, use a damp cloth to remove any rodents, droppings or debris, then scrub down or mop thoroughly with the bleach mixture.
  • Once clean, collect all materials and towels and double bag them, before disposing of them.
  • Before removing your gloves be sure to wash them with soap and water or a disinfectant.
  • Once you have removed your gloves, wash hands thoroughly with soap and water or a disinfectant.

Take Precautions Outdoors

Precautions should be taken outside of the home to avoid exposure to Hantavirus. Whether you are hiking, camping or working outdoors, always try to prevent contact with rodents. Outdoor precautions include:

  • Avoid any contact with potential rodent nest or burrows.
  • Always check cabins and tents for suspected rodent infestation.
  • Air out all outdoor shelters periodically.
  • If you need to clean up any rodent droppings or nests, be sure to use the bleach solution and precautions listed above.
  • Never place tents or sleeping bags near rodent droppings or nests.
  • Try not to sleep on the ground, choose tents with a floor ground instead.
  • Always store food items in airtight containers with secure lids.
  • Keep any trash in containers with lids that rodents cannot get into.
  • Never touch or feed rodents in the wild.

Watch for Symptoms

If you think that you may have been exposed to Hantavirus, it is important to watch your symptoms and contact your health care provider immediately. Symptoms of Hantavirus include:

Early Stages

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Body aches
  • Body chills
  • Stomach upset
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Flu-Like symptoms

Later Stages

  • Coughing
  • Severe shortness of breath
  • Fluid in the lungs
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Respiratory distress

Hantavirus is a rare, but potentially fatal disease. The best defense against Hantavirus is to know the facts and use precautions to protect yourself from exposure. Only humans are susceptible to the disease, as other animals cannot contract it. There have been no cases of Hantavirus being passed from person to person.

Sources:

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