Summit County health officials warn against hantavirus |

Summit County health officials warn against hantavirus

Hantavirus is transmitted by the cute and tiny deer mouse. Approaching 700 people across the nation have been infected by the sometimes fatal disease since it was first identified in the U.S. in 1993.
Summit Daily File Photo |

We’ve all seen them — the tiny, darling deer mouse. However, the seemingly harmless critter could be carrying a deadly pathogen, and Summit County residents should be alert.

“They’re the cutest little things,” said Dan Hendershott, the county’s environmental health manager. “They have the big ears and big beady eyes.”

But about 12 percent of these mice, and other rodents, can spread the hantavirus — an inconspicuous and sometimes deadly disease. The virus hides in mice feces and urine, things that people instinctually want to clean up. Briskly sweeping up the waste without proper precautions can cause the virus to go airborne, where it is easily inhaled.

In 2015, the state saw six confirmed cases of hantavirus — colloquially referred to as “The Four Corners Disease” because of its prevalence in the region — including one in Chaffee County. Four of those individuals died, including the 52-year-old custodian from Buena Vista who first felt flu-like symptoms in early January last year and then passed away under hospital care just four days later.

“It’s not quite 100 percent,” continued Hendershott of the probability of fatality, “but I still wouldn’t want to gamble with those odds. And that 40 percent (who die on average) have died even with medical treatment. We see it a lot, almost classically, every single time someone gets hantavirus, and we interview the person or their relatives, they were tackling cleaning up the shed.”

Since 1993, when hantavirus was first identified in the United States, there have been 690 reported cases of human infection as of January this year, including more than 90 in Colorado. Of the latter, there have been four in Eagle County, three in Park, one in Grand and also the death in Chaffee.

“All of our neighbors have had it,” said Hendershott, “with the exception of Clear Creek and Lake counties, and so we have every reason to believe hantavirus can be acquired here. But no Summit County cases, and we want to keep it that way.”

It’s not just the states that make up the Four Corners of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah. In 2012 alone, Yosemite National Park in northeastern California experienced eight confirmed cases, three leading to death, and The Golden State has seen more than 62 cases overall.

What’s tricky is the illness, like many others, presents itself as a mild fever, chills, leg or back pains and, in some cases, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. One might clean out a garage, crawlspace or even just move a woodpile one day, and anywhere from one-to-six weeks later during the incubation period come under these flu-like traits. Treatment is usually more effective earlier into the possible infection, so it is critical that a person schedule a doctor’s appointment as soon as possible if there are concerns over possible hantavirus and also inform their doctor of exposure to droppings or a dead mouse.

“It is quite severe, but it is quite rare,” explained Sara Lopez, a registered nurse at Summit’s Department of Public Health. “The symptoms can really, at the beginning, look like many other diseases, so just adding that history if you do become ill is helpful.”

Steering clear of the prospects of contracting the disease is the best form of prevention. That means staving off rodent infestation by sealing up possible openings in your home and, if you do spot a deer mouse or its droppings, addressing it properly based on a set of official guidelines. Mousetraps are a good deterrent, but holes around the house should also be sought out and repaired.

As far as removing droppings or a dead animal, the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment suggests first ventilating the zone by opening nearby doors and windows for at least 30 minutes before starting the cleanup process. Then, use a strong disinfectant — bleach in a 1-to-9 parts water ratio should do the trick — to saturate the area to prevent the virus’ particles from going airborne. Rubber gloves, a dust mask and paper towels are useful tools for the operation. More recommendations can be found at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at

“Find out how to clean it up properly to avoid that exposure,” said Hendershott. “And of course, if you’ve got a dead animal, you really want to soak it good and let the disinfectant penetrate into it. We can control our environment typically; it’s when people just jump into it without taking those precautions where we have problems.

“Don’t freak out,” he added, “but don’t just move forward. Just having an informed public on these things and how diseases work is going to help us prevent unnecessary illness or death.”

This is the first in a three-part series of public health stories on zoonotic diseases, which can be transmitted from animal to human. Look for the follow-ups in the next two Thursday editions.

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