I know the title to this post is a little concerning, that’s because it is. I want to share a story about what happened to Albert and I a little more than 8 weeks ago. If you have been reading our posts you will recall the post about the mouse. I am here today to tell you “the rest of the story”. I am not trying to scare you but inform you of something that might save your life.
This is about: Hantaviruses – they are single-stranded, enveloped, negative sense RNA viruses in the Bunyaviridae family which can kill humans. We discovered that the mouse we trapped (and blogged about) was a Deer Mouse and that some deer mice carry the Hanavarius.
All of you Californians might remember: August of 2012 in Yosemite National Park: Three people died after contracting hantavirus during their stay in tent cabins at Yosemite National Park’s Curry Village. The cabins were sanitized to minimize the risk of contracting the rodent-borne disease, but it’s absolutely impossible to eliminate all risk.
Albert and I did what anyone would have done after finding a mouse in our home – set a trap, dispose of the body and clean up.
Oh what a mess it was. There was feces under the sink, on top of the sink, under the couch, in the closet, you name it – that mouse had been everywhere. So we started to clean up. We swept and wiped and vacuumed in places we couldn’t reach by hand. We washed all the dishes in the cabinets and wiped out drawers until we couldn’t see any more waste from this mouse. By the end of the day we were exhausted and sat down to see what we could do to keep mice from entering our RV in the future. As we were researching mice in camping places we ran across an article about Hantavirus and deer mice. We quickly went back to the dump area where Albert had disposed of the mouse and to our shock saw that it was a dear mouse as described in this article. We looked at each other and said in disbelief, “no, are you sure, is it really, did it carry this deadly virus?” The story than got worse, it said that what ever you DO NOT vacuum or disturb the area because that is how the virus is spread. My mind flashed back to seeing Albert with the vacuum cleaner under the couch and under the sink area cleaning just minutes ago. Oh My God what have we done!
I started to cry and tremble to think that we might have congested this virus. We read, I think, almost every article on the web about this horrible, deadly virus. We held each other in our arms and tried to convince ourselves that we couldn’t have contracted this virus, that this mouse wasn’t infected with this virus – he couldn’t have been, right?
We tried to get some sleep that night but it was on our minds. Then, no more than a couple of days later, I started to feel sick, I felt that I was coming down with a sinus cold —- but was it? Later that day I asked Albert to take me to a doctor so I could get confirmation that it was just a cold. We drove to the little town down the road from the RV Park, but they couldn’t admit me and we were sent to another town further down the road. We finally arrived at a little hospital about an hour from where we were camped. I don’t know who was more scared me or Albert thinking that I might have the Hantavirus. The doctor examined me and told me that It was just a cold or sinuses like I had expected. Than we told him the story about our mouse. He suddenly changed his demeanor and started telling us about the hantavirus and how there was no cure and advised us to stay close to a facility where they can administer help to us if we start showing any sign of the virus.
He than handed us two N-95 face masks and a pamphlet on what symptoms to watch for and how to properly clean up after this mouse. He also said that this virus is not transferred from human to human, so any contact with people would be safe. He said that the virus has an incubation time of 2 to 5weeks, although we had read that there was one case where it was after 8 weeks. No blood test could tell us if we had it or not, we just had to WAIT.
And wait we did, counting every day and sometimes every moment. Making sure we took care of ourselves, eating right and getting enough sleep. There wasn’t much else we could do but wait. We tried to get back to being excited about our trip but there was always this sword in our backs letting us know that it was still possiblely there. This is the real reason we abandoned any plans of going to Alaska. Instead, we stayed in Washington close to a hospital as suggested by the Doctor. We stayed for the duration of 6 weeks ( one week more than the “official” incubation period) and then decided to move on to Montana. Finally, the 8 weeks came and we celebrated it with joy!
I am today writing this blog because I don’t want anyone to ever have this experience. The odds are that you will never come across a dear mouse that is infected with this virus but you just don’t know. ALL OF THIS would have been ellimated just with proper cleaning. Click the link below to read an article that was given to us by people from the Hantavirus Hotline on how to properly clean after ANY RODENT…………. Please read and stay informed…
We are now prepared – We carry the proper cleaning supplies and two N-100 (HEPA) face-masks (one step up from the N-95 masks we received from the doctor) for any further encounter of rodents. We also have purchased Fresh Cab and have spread that around the various nooks and crannies in motorhome … so far, it has kept them out.
Please be informed…. do some research on your own. There is a Hantavirus hot-line which we called many of times with questions and they were very nice and helpful. Call them if you have any questions:
Added Information about the Virus:
HANTAVIRUS IS A STRANGE little zoonotic beast. Zoonosis is the movement of a pathogen from an animal to a human. David Quammen describes it in his recent book, Spillover, as “a word of the future, destined for heavy use in the 21st century.” Some of the most disturbing viruses to emerge in the past 30 years have been zoonotic: Ebola, Hendra virus, HIV, SARS, West Nile. Even as we wipe out more species, humans are coming into closer contact with other animals and inviting their viruses into our world, into our blood.
Hantavirus hit the American radar in 1993. That spring, a healthy young Navajo man and his fiancée died suddenly in the Four Corners area, where the borders of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah meet. Both had suffered acute respiratory failure, which means that they couldn’t breathe. An Indian Health Service doctor, going over death records, discovered five similarly healthy young people who’d all died under similar circumstances. Over the next few weeks, more patients turned up with the same symptoms. Because many victims were Navajo or came from the reservation region, the media initially dubbed it the Navajo flu.
According to Mark Smolinski, an epidemiologist who studies emerging pandemics for the Skoll Global Threats Fund, a San Francisco non-profit founded by former eBay executive Jeff Skoll, symptoms included “a simple cold, a sudden fever—then trouble breathing and an immediate downhill course.” Back in 1993, Smolinski worked on the Four Corners mystery as a young public-health official. He and his colleagues, he remembers, found a chalkboard and listed “every known possible disease, toxin, chemical, or occupational exposure.”
Finally, virologists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), working with tissue samples from the victims, discovered a genetic link to hantaviruses, a family of European viruses previously unknown in North America. The European virus caused kidney failure, but the Four Corners victims died of lung failure. What emerged in the Southwest that spring was a new strain of hantavirus endemic to North America. Scientists called the strain Sin Nombre, Spanish for nameless. Thirty percent of deer mice trapped in the Four Corners area were found to be carrying the Sin Nombre strain.
Mice infected with hantavirus shed the living virus in their urine, feces, and saliva. It takes just the right combination of timing, drying, and aerosolization for humans to become infected. A mouse pees or poops, the excrement dries onto dust particles, then those particles get swept up into the air. Human infection most commonly happens in confined spaces like houses, cabins, or storage areas, but it’s got to happen within 48 hours of the mouse shedding the virus—researchers have, so far, seen hantavirus survive for only two days outside a host.
Once a human inhales the virus, it can take up to five weeks to incubate. Then the victim comes down with flu-like symptoms that can linger for days. The symptoms might actually lessen for a bit. Then, all of a sudden, things take a turn for the worse. Much worse.
“It felt like the flu for about a week, and then one night I got horribly sick,” says Ethan Lindsey, a 34-year-old public-radio producer, who contracted hantavirus during a visit to Montana from his home in Bend, Oregon, in 2009. A month later, he ran a Fourth of July 5K. Felt great. Four days after that, he came down with what felt like the flu. “I was drained, bone weary, coughing,” he says. He went to the doctor, who couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t swine flu, maybe just a mild case of pneumonia. Lindsey went home and rested, but continued to decline. “I felt horribly sick,” he says. “About midnight, my fiancée drove me to the hospital,” the St. Charles Medical Center in Bend. “I almost fainted on the way there.”
The turn from flu to respiratory failure happens so fast that one hantavirus survivor group on Facebook advises people who suspect they’ve been infected to designate a friend to monitor them around the clock. If things go south, a victim may be too sick to reach the hospital alone.
If the disease reaches that point—and it’s unclear what percentage of those infected with hantavirus actually do—it’s bad. Breathing begins to fail. Some victims describe the feeling of a band tightening around their chest or of being smothered with a pillow. “They put me on oxygen because it was becoming hard to breathe,” says Lindsey. “I remember the doctor telling me, ‘Listen, your oxygen saturation is at 60 percent and dropping fast. Once it hits 40 percent, major organs are going to fail and you’re going to die. We think we need to put you into a medically induced coma.’”
They put Lindsey under for nine days. Doctors hooked him up to a high-frequency oscillating ventilator because his lungs were filling with fluid. At one point his fever ran so high that nurses put his unconscious body in an ice bath.
Lindsey’s doctors still didn’t know it was hantavirus. “It’s so rare, why would they test me for that, right?” he says. The hantavirus test takes four to seven days. It’s extremely nuanced and difficult to interpret. There are a lot of false positives.
Even if they’d known, there wasn’t much more to be done. There is no known cure. The best that doctors can do is hook up a patient to a ventilator and let the body fight the virus on its own. The fortunate, like Lindsey, recover. But many are not fortunate.
“We had a 75 percent mortality rate in those Four Corners cases,” says Smolinski. “We wanted to know: Did this just pop up, or did something change? And were there some ecological pressures that caused it to evolve to the point where we started to recognize it?”
There were two answers. A study of autopsies in the Southwest indicated that there had been fatal cases of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, or HPS (as the disease associated with the Sin Nombre strain came to be called), dating back to the 1950s. At that time, doctors had attributed the deaths to respiratory distress, cause unknown. In fact, CDC investigators found that traditional Navajo medicine recognized a similar disease—and associated its occurrence with mice.
Today, researchers believe that hantavirus coevolved with North American rodents. Deer mice are the virus’ main host, though variations appear in white-footed mice, cotton rats, and rice rats as well. The rodents are considered reservoirs, which means that they harbor the virus without being affected by it.
To Smolinski’s second question, there were indeed ecological pressures. An unusually wet winter led to a bumper crop of nuts on the region’s piñon pines that spring. Flush with food, mice populations exploded. The virus hadn’t mutated. There were simply more mice about, which meant more chances for people to come in contact with the virus.
The 1993 outbreak ultimately claimed 27 lives—a mortality rate of 56 percent. That’s shockingly high. The Ebola virus, top of the scary charts, has a mortality rate of 30 to 90 percent. But there was one piece of good news: hantavirus didn’t transmit person-to-person. It moved from mouse to human, but humans seemed to be dead-end vessels. Infected patients weren’t contagious.
The hanta scare died down after 1993. But the virus didn’t go away. About 30 people come down with hantavirus in the U.S. every year. The mortality rate remains high: 37 percent of patients diagnosed with hantavirus die. It shows up all over the place, but predominantly in the West. New Mexico: 91 cases since 1993. Colorado: 78. Montana: 35. California: 48.
In most cases, the carriers of the virus turned out to be deer mice. Which is a challenge. You can’t wipe out the disease by killing all the deer mice. (The deer mouse, Peromyscus maniculatus, prefers rural fields, forests, and outbuildings; it has nothing to do with deer, despite its name. The mice you trap in your basement are more likely house mice, Mus musculus, which aren’t known carriers.) For North American carnivores, deer mice are like nature’s wheat. They’re the food staple for birds, cats, reptiles, and canines. They grow like a crop during spring and summer, and with a certain percentage of them grows the hanta.
Be informed and be safe….