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Take a Hike | Commentary by Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel
| Sunday, Aug 23, 2015

DianneErskineHellrigelA friend of mine spent years of her life desperately trying to make it in this world.

After her divorce, she was unable to get a job and floated from place to place, living with various friends and relatives. It was a difficult existence at best. As luck would have it, she inherited a lovely cabin in the Eastern Sierras and was delighted to have her own place and settle into what she thought would be a better life. The cabin was perfect for her, and it was in one of her favorite locations with amazing views of the mountains, trees, and a creek where she could fish. We made plans for a visit when she was ready.

The cabin had not been lived in for many years. It had been taken over by rodents and needed a thorough cleaning before she could settle in. So on Day One, she swept the floors of droppings, plugged holes so the mice could no longer get in and dreamed of furnishing the place and decorating it.

Within a week, she began experiencing various symptoms including severe muscle aches, chills, fever, headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, coughing, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain and low blood pressure. She thought she had the flu. She thought some of her symptoms might be related to the higher altitude that she was not accustomed to, and then she experienced respiratory failure. My friend died.

20130521123055300_1Hantavirus is a rare but deadly disease that was first recognized in 1993. Humans get it from infected rodents. It is an airborne disease and does not spread from person to person.

The infection occurs when a person comes into contact with airborne virus particles from rodent droppings or scat. The virus particles are inhaled, and the disease symptoms can take from one to six weeks to appear.

The best way to avoid this virus is to avoid exposure. If you are in an area where there are rodent droppings, leave. If you’re in a cabin that has droppings, use a wet method to clean it up so particles do not become airborne. Air it out before you even begin to clean. Wear a medical mask or respiratory mask to prevent inhalation. Wear protective gloves, and throw them away in a plastic bag when you are done. Wash yourself and your clothes when you are finished, as well. If there are dead rodents around, spray them heavily with disinfectant before you remove them. Use a bleach and water mixture to clean.

22-15_Hantavirus_1Not everyone dies from hantavirus. The death rate is around 40 percent. Seeing a doctor early and recognizing the symptoms will increase your rate of survival. Preventing exposure in the first place is the most important thing you can do. There is no vaccine and no treatment for it other than making the patient feel more comfortable and hydrated. Medical care can help reduce the symptoms, and with care, there is a better chance for recovery.

Hantavirus can progress into hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, which can be fatal. The hantavirus in our country is called “New World hantavirus” or “sin nombre hantavirus.” Old World hantaviruses causes hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome.

The activities that can put you at risk in areas that have rodents include sweeping, dusting, using air blowers, working in barns or other out-buildings, being in places that have not been occupied in a while, hiking or camping in rodent-infested areas, and handling grain or other foods that are polluted with rodent droppings.

rodentsIf you live in any western states, you have the chance of being exposed to hantavirus. Keep your home safe by sealing any holes where mice might be able to enter. Do not leave pet food dishes around when the pet is not eating. Store all pet food (including grains) in sealed containers. Use trash cans with rodent-proof lids. Use mouse traps if you see mice or their droppings. Keep your property debris-free. Things like wood piles, old cars and other trash are inviting places for rodents to live. All hay, firewood, and other “stackables” should be stored at least 100 feet from your home.

The states with the highest incidence of hantavirus are Arizona, Colorado, California and New Mexico. The only two states that have not had an incidence of hantavirus are Hawaii and Alaska.

Not all rodents carry hantavirus. In North America, the rodents to be cautious of are deer mice, white footed mice, rice rats and cotton rats. Not all of these rats and mice carry the virus, and the virus does not kill them. If you cannot immediately recognize these species of rodents, it is best to avoid them all and be safe.



Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel is executive director of the Community Hiking Club and president of the Santa Clara River Watershed Conservancy. Contact Dianne through communityhikingclub.org or at zuliebear@aol.com.





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  1. Steven Lee says:

    It is the reason that I bring a tent when I visit my cousin near Yosemite. She has an old cabin on the property. I would rather be cold in a tent than risk staying in that old musky cabin. Thanks for the article.

  2. Thank you… good info. Now I know why there is a rodent in the photo. 😑

  3. thank you, very sad!!! good information

  4. jimvs says:

    Sorry to hear about your friend Dianne.

    Some words of caution to the readers:

    I have some experience in doing decon of potentially hantavirus contaminated structures from the original California outbreak referenced. While I haven’t been involved in quite a few years, I do remember the drill.

    Don’t try to clean out an old shed or cabin in the known Hantavirus carrier regions without taking specific precautions.

    1. Hantavirus contaminates both feces and urine of the rodent species it infects. Dried rodent urine is essentially invisible to the naked eye. Assume that rat/mouse pellets present mean there is dried urine as well.

    2. Hantavirus goes dormant when the rodent waste dries and can remain infectious for a long time in dark places.

    3. Sunlight (the UV rays) will kill the hantavirus, but it may take hours of exposure.

    4. Respirators with at least HEPA cartridges must be worn; heavily contaminated areas where the rodent waste cannot be thoroughly soaked with decontaminating fluids may require Powered Air Purifying Respirators or Air Supplied respirators to prevent infection.

    5. Decontaminating fluids using either hospital-strength Lysol or a strong bleach solution (check with the CDC or do a Web search for more recent and specific data) should be used to thoroughly soak the rodent waste and all locations that the rodents have or may have been.

    6. Disposable protective clothing should be worn including head coverings. If the respirators do not provide eye protection, eye protection should be added.

    7. At completion of work, the workers must be decontaminated with at least soap and water before removing their protective clothing.

    8. All removed waste (rodent waste/bodies, cleaning rags, wipes, respirators filters, decon suits were considered Hazardous Materials and required special disposal. Respirators and other equipment not disposed of require thorough decontamination.

    9. A number of companies were providing “trained” crews to do Hantavirus decontamination back in the days after the outbreak. Some of them may well still be around.

    Back then, these processes were only used within or adjacent to the known range of the hantavirus carrying rodents. We were only concerned about the Deer Mouse, a known carrier in California, Arizona and New Mexico. That information may be available at the CDC as well.

    We only occasionally did decon jobs at low elevations or south of the Sierra/Tehachapi/Owens Valley areas. At the time that was considered “an abundance of caution”.

    Procedures may be less stringent these days, but I guarantee you that I would still proceed as noted above.

  5. Wow thanks for sharing!

  6. Thanks for the information. Sorry to hear about your friend.

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