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Hantavirus Sickens 2, Kills 1 in Yosemite

Joe Moore
Valley Public Radio

One California resident is dead and another is ill today after contracting a rare disease spread by deer mice while vacationing at Yosemite National Park. Officials with the State Department of Public Health announced today that they believe the individuals contracted the disease while staying at Yosemite's Curry Village.

Hantavirus is rare in the state, but the disease is often deadly. Since 1993 there have been 60 cases of the disease in California, and about one third of those cases have been fatal.

Humans can get the disease through contact with the saliva, feces or urine of infected deer mice. Dr. Dee Lacy, an infectious disease specialist with Kaiser Permanente in Fresno says, "if that is aerosolized, that is it dries up and it blows around, and we breathe it in, then we get the infection in our lungs."

Public health officials issued an advisory today, warning residents about the symptoms of the disease, which usually start about one to six weeks after exposure to the virus. They include fever, headache and muscle ache, and can quickly progress to difficulty breathing, and in some cases death.

Dr. Lacy says because there's no vaccine for hantavirus, identifying the disease early is a top priority for health professionals.

"There is no specific anti-virus therapy for this, but if you get people into the hospital, we can keep somebody alive on a breathing machine while their body can deal with the infection and then they get better."

She says because of its rarity and relatively common symptoms, it can sometimes go undiagnosed. 

"I think that's why public health put out the letter, is that this is an uncommon thing. They're hoping that physicians will recognize that this is a possibility when they see someone with a syndrome that could be consistent with this, and ask about their exposures. Or that maybe some people who have been to Yosemite in the last one to six weeks, and say 'oh my gosh we went in and cleaned up all those dropping in that closet and now I have these muscle aches, I better get in.'"

According to public health officials, Yosemite National Park routinely monitors infections in the deer mice population and inspects park facilities for signs of rodent infestations.

The California Department of Public Health issued the following guidelines for avoiding the virus:

• Avoid areas, especially indoors, where wild rodents are likely to have been present. • Keep food in tightly sealed containers and store away from rodents. • Keep rodents out of buildings by removing stacked wood, rubbish piles, and discarded junk from around homes and sealing any holes where rodents could enter. • If you can clean your sleeping or living area, open windows to air out the areas for at least two hours before entering. Take care not to stir up dust. Wear plastic gloves and spray areas contaminated with rodent droppings and urine with a 10% bleach solution or other household disinfectants and wait at least 15 minutes before cleaning the area. Place the waste in double plastic bags, each tightly sealed, and discard in the trash. Wash hands thoroughly afterward. • Do not touch or handle live rodents and wear gloves when handling dead rodents. Spray dead rodents with a disinfectant and dispose of in the same way as droppings. Wash hands thoroughly after handling dead rodents. • If there are large numbers of rodents in a home or other buildings, contact a pest control service to remove them.

Joe Moore is the President and General Manager of Valley Public Radio. During his tenure, he's helped lead the station through major programming changes and the COVID-19 pandemic, while maintaining the station's financial health. From 2010-2018 he served as the station's Director of Program Content. In that role, he also served as the host of Valley Edition, and helped launch and grow the station's award-winning local news department. He is a Fresno native and a graduate of California State University, Fresno.