Hantavirus is a disease that is spread through the urine, saliva, and feces of rodents, such as the deer mouse and cotton rat. When a person is exposed to infected specimens, they risk contracting a rare, dangerous lung disease called pulmonary syndrome.
In May 1993, the United States recorded its first known outbreak of hantavirus. The outbreak took place in Four Corners, an area that is made up of parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. Four Corners is occupied by several Native American tribes, including the Navajo. At the Navajo reservation at Four Corners, an alarming spike in pulmonary syndrome-related deaths took place.
This spike was first recognized by local medical professionals. Their strategic actions eventually led to the rapid isolation of hantavirus.
Press coverage of a mysterious disease outbreak soon spread like wildfire. You can even watch the incident unravel in this episode of Forensic Files. The television show was released in 1998, five years after the Four Corners incident.
Four Corners was experiencing an unusual number of deaths relating to the sudden onset of lung disease. The first such death was that of a healthy 19-year-old Navajo man. The man experienced sudden shortness of breath just moments before losing contentiousness. Emergency personnel was called to the scene. However, attempts to control the man’s breathing were unsuccessful. He died quickly, leaving many unanswered questions.
Once medical professionals began looking at the recently deceased man’s body, they made some alarming conclusions. An x-ray revealed that the man’s lungs were filled with liquid when he died.
The medical investigator at the hospital also determined that the man wasn’t the only individual in the community to die of a sudden onset of pulmonary syndrome. The medical investigator had also performed an autopsy on a 30-year-old Navajo woman who had suffered from flu-like symptoms and breathing issues before dying.
It soon became known that the 19-year-old man and 30-year-old woman were not the only victims of this mysterious disease. The young man’s fiance suffered flu-like symptoms and shortness of death and passed away only days before him.
Reports leaked that additional residents of the Navajo reservation had recently succumbed to lung infections. However, medical records were not shared within the Navajo reservation and local hospitals. For this reason, the CDC and local medical investigators could not thoroughly examine the phenomenon happening in Four Corners.
Epidemiologists were set with an impossible task. Yet, they managed to isolate the disease in less than a year. Since then, the CDC has been able to track the disease. There has been an average of 28 cases each year since 1994.
While scientists did the impossible in 1994, there are still many questions left unanswered. How do deer mice contract hantavirus? Why do outbreaks occur? Can some hantaviruses be transmitted by humans or pets?
We do know that the Four Corners cases originated in homes with poor insulation and usually prevalent rodent populations. Perhaps the conditions were simply too good for such a disease to fail. The one thing that we do know is that there are many safe, inexpensive, and effective ways to keep rodent populations at bay.
Epidemiologists examined the bodies of the Navajo people who died from pulmonary syndrome during the 1993 outbreak of hantavirus. They were able to isolate the disease within a matter of months.
The isolated disease was pulled from a deer mouse found near the property of one of the victims. The infectious disease was first called Sin Nombre and then hantavirus.
Epidemiologists were able to conclude that people who were used to deer mice were at a much greater risk for contracting this alarming disease. As a result, people who live in places with deer mice must take regular precautions to mitigate rodents.
According to the CDC, deer mice reside in forests and deserts. They live everywhere within the continental United States and Canada. The cotton rat, another hantavirus carrier, is more prevalent in the southeastern United States, Central America, and South America. The same goes for the white-footed mouse, another known carrier of hantavirus.
When people coexist with rodent populations, they risk breathing in particles containing their feces, urine, or nesting materials. They may breathe in the material or touch them and transfer them to their mouth, nose, or eyes.
Most hantavirus outbreaks have taken place in areas that are also home to unusually large rodent populations.
Containing the Virus
Hantavirus is harmful to healthy men, women, and children. While the disease is exceptionally rare, it seems to randomly pop up from time to time. When it does, it has the potential to kill.
It is important to note that hantavirus does not spread from person to person. Individuals are only infected when they are exposed to the saliva, droppings, and urine from rodent carriers. Most cases of hantavirus have been recorded in rural areas that are home to large rodent populations.
The deer mice are carriers of the most prevalent hantavirus, Sin Nombre. These rodents were responsible for the outbreak that took place at the Navajo reservation in Four Corners. The white-footed mouse and cotton rat have also been linked to hantavirus outbreaks around the world.
After researchers were able to isolate the hantavirus in Four Corners, they found that the rodent populations in the Navajo reservation were 10 times larger than they were one year earlier. As a result, humans were closer to rodents than they ever had been before. While all prior research suggests that hantavirus is only transmitted from rodents to people, there are indicators that it can be spread from person to person too.
Snap traps, like the Vector Rat Trap, are your best tools of defense against rodents. They kill rats and mice instantaneously. You do not need to use poisonous rodenticides. You will be able to physically dispose of rodents once they are caught.
How Can You Prevent the Spread of Hantavirus?
Do your best to keep mice and rats out of your home. If you notice rodent droppings or nesting materials, call a company like Eco Bear so that they can safely dispose of the materials and disinfect your property.
Rodent urine, droppings, and nesting materials cannot be swept. These common cleaning procedures could cause even more damage. After all, hantavirus is commonly spread through the air. A trained professional should be hired to remove all rodent-related materials. Then, they must use bleach or another powerful disinfectant to disinfect surfaces. The CDC recommends that people use a solution made of 1 ½ cups bleach and 1 gallon of water.
Extreme care must be taken when handling and disposing of rodent-related materials. They need to be double-bagged and disposed of legally. The person handling them must follow strict protocols, including the wearing of rubber gloves and protective clothing. Rodents carry several diseases besides hantavirus. They may also be carriers of fleas, Leptospirosis, lymphocytic choriomeningitis, plague, and typhus.
The work isn’t done when the rodent droppings, nesting materials, etc. have been removed. There may still be rodents living in your property. You will need to take steps to remove any sources of food or nesting materials. You will need to place snap traps to kill and remove any remaining rodents.
Steps to take:
- Keep food in sealed containers
- Remove pet food after feedings
- Take garbage out before going to bed
- Do not let loose debris pile up in your yard
- Control plant growth around your home
- Keep a tight lid on outdoor garage containers
- Place traps in outbuildings and sheds
- Block all potential entry points
Hantavirus is just one disease that is spread by rodents. While this disease is incredibly rare, it is highly infectious and, in most cases, lethal. It can cause otherwise healthy children and adults to fall dead in a matter of days. We must look back at outbreaks like the one at Four Corners when planning for the future. Armed with the knowledge we have about hantavirus and rodent carriers, we must work to prevent rodent infestations. At Eco Bear, we can help you eradicate rodent populations safely and effectively.