Expert Warns People Cleaning Camps, Cabins This Fall To Take Precautions Against Possible Hantavirus

Lawrence LeBlond for – Your Universe Online

The hunting season is upon us and that means thousands of people will be heading into the woods to deer camps and cabins for their yearly ritual. And for those who will be cleaning out and camping at these cabins, precautions should be taken to avoid a possible viral infection similar to one that has plagued California´s Yosemite National Park this summer.

The warning comes from David Wolfgang, director of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences at Penn State´s College of Agricultural Medicine. Wolfgang said that hantavirus has killed several people in Pennsylvania over the years, and many more throughout the country since it was first discovered in the US in 1993.

While the threat of hantavirus is greater this year than in previous years, mainly due to an increased population of certain mice species that can carry the virus, Wolfgang emphasized that caution–but not panic–is warranted.

Before 2012, data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showed that 587 cases of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS) have been reported in the US. Of these cases, 556 occurred following the initial discovery of HPS in 1993. About 36 percent of all HPS cases reported have been fatal (roughly 200 people).

“Several species of wild rodents, such as the deer mouse and the white-footed mouse, have been linked to the virus,” said Wolfgang. “You could be at risk when opening or cleaning a hunting camp or cabin — that may put you in contact with rodent droppings, urine or nesting materials.”

Because the virus enters the body when contaminated dust is inhaled, people should wear masks while cleaning camps out, especially if there is a sign of rodent infestation. Rodent feces and urine, once dry can be stirred up with dust, making it easily inhalable.

Once hantavirus gets into your system, HPS can set in. HPS is a serious, acute lung disease that causes the lungs to fill with fluid, explained Wolfgang.

He noted that the CDC website has a listing of precautions that should be taken when interacting with areas that may have, or have had, rodent infestations.

Some of these precautions include: wash all dishes and utensils in hot soapy water before use, store food in rodent-proof containers, ensure that bedding, pillows and sleeping bags are clean, and launder them before use if they may have been contaminated by rodents. To keep further infestations from occurring, block holes and fill cracks where rodents may be able to enter.

Once buildings have been opened, it is a good idea to let them air out for at least 30 minutes before cleaning. Wearing rubber gloves and a protective mask is also a good idea. Spray all materials and surfaces thoroughly with disinfectant, especially areas where droppings and urine are suspected. For larger areas, a bleach solution may be necessary.

“Be especially careful with vacuum cleaners,” warned Wolfgang. “The dampened rodent droppings should be carefully picked up as described and not picked up with a vacuum cleaner, because this may aerosolize the virus and put you at greater risk.”

Also, sleeping on the floor or around walls where rodents may have trafficked is a risk factor as well, he noted. “Those areas should be thoroughly cleaned prior to sleeping with your face close to potentially contaminated surfaces.”

After cleaning, all materials used should be buried, burned or disposed of appropriately. Gloves should be disinfected before removing them, and washing your hands with soap and hot water immediately afterward should provide a proper amount of protection from infection.

“The symptoms of the disease are nonspecific and include fever, fatigue and muscle aches,” said Wolfgang. “Patients also may experience headaches, dizziness, chills and abdominal problems. Symptoms may begin one to five weeks after exposure.”

After four to 10 days, some patients may experience coughing and shortness of breath, he added. “If symptoms occur, check with your physician and mention that you may have been exposed to rodent contamination.”

While the disease is rare, Wolfgang said it is “important that people are aware of the potential when they clean out cabins or hunting camps.”

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