The abundant sunshine has turned my thoughts to spring and the evitable spring cleaning that most of us undertake to mark the end of winter. Garages and closets get reorganized. Seasonal cabins that have lain dormant for five or six months are opened up, and aired out.
The problem with spring-cleaning those rooms and buildings that have been shut tight for months is that rodents may have been hanging out and breeding in the quiet dark, leaving fecal droppings and urine behind that could carry the deadly hantavirus.
Every spring the media reports outbreaks of the hantavirus, with symptoms that may start off looking like the flu but, after a week, can become a serious pulmonary infection requiring intensive treatment.
Given that our California drought has turned into a near-monsoon over the last season, we need to be particularly cautious around rodent dropping this spring, because this warm and wet winter has created an environment perfect for an explosion in the rodent population.
Hantavirus was first identified in the spring of 1993 in the Four Corners area of the United States where Utah, Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico converge.
A previously healthy young man walked into a local hospital and promptly died because his lungs had filled with fluid and he was unable to breath. His fiancée had died the week before, of similar symptoms, and the medical community was stumped as to why two otherwise healthy people would succumb so quickly to their flu-like symptoms.
There were other healthy men and women in the same geographic area experiencing similar symptoms, but doctors could not pinpoint a cause. Various agencies were pulled in and the hunt was on. After a summer and fall of intense investigation, researchers realized they had a new strain of virus on their hands and needed to determine how people were coming into contact with the virus.
The details of this story are interesting and anyone who enjoys medical mysteries can access more information on the CDC’s website but, the gist is, they figured out the deer mouse was playing host for the new strain of hantavirus.
When an infected mouse deposits urine or droppings, the virus is live for hours afterwards, just waiting for a new host. When someone disturbs the droppings and urine, the virus becomes airborne and can be inhaled. About one to five weeks later flu symptoms appear.
The part that is most interesting and relevant to us right now is how the CDC describes the reason for the intense outbreak in the Four Corners area in 1993 (https://www.cdc.gov/hantavirus/outbreaks/history.html):
“The Four Corners area had been in a drought for several years. Then, in early 1993, heavy snows and rainfall helped drought-stricken plants and animals to revive and grow in larger-than-usual numbers. The area’s deer mice had plenty to eat, and as a result they reproduced so rapidly that there were ten times more mice in May 1993 than there had been in May of 1992. With so many mice, it was more likely that mice and humans would come into contact with one another, and thus more likely that the hantavirus carried by the mice would be transmitted to humans.” (CDC)
Does that description sound potentially familiar? “Drought conditions, followed by ridiculous amounts of moisture creating more food sources for rodents,” is the same position we find ourselves in now.
This year, when you set off to open your summer cabin or clean out the barn, garage or other outbuilding, the CDC recommends that you follow these guidelines:
- Before cleaning up an area with rodent nests, ventilate the area for at least 30 minutes by opening doors and windows
- Use protective gloves and a mask when cleaning up dead rodents or rodent droppings
- Do not sweep or vacuum rodent nests or dropping, this will cause the virus to become airborne
- Spray rodent droppings and nests with disinfectant before disposing in a plastic bag
- Do not sleep in an area where rodents nest
In Yosemite National Park the hantavirus was responsible for killing three and making seven others very sick in 2012. These unconnected visitors were staying in tent cabins and, a month or so after their vacation, experienced what they thought was the flu.
It quickly turned into a vicious pneumonia-like disease that filled their lungs with fluid. This virus kills 38% of those who inhale it, so you must take it seriously.
If you have been around deer mice droppings, nesting material or dead rodents and you become sick with flu like symptoms for up to eight weeks afterward, see your doctor and explain that you may have been exposed to hantavirus.
It is easy to protect yourself against hantavirus and, if you want to avoid the possibility of spending the summer in ICU, it’s a good idea buy your cleaning supplies now!