Death from hantavirus in ND: How it's caused and how to prevent it

Published: Aug. 27, 2018 at 6:12 PM CDT
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A North Dakota woman has died from a virus caused by rodent droppings. The North Dakota Department of Health says the hantavirus is rare, but you can get it after cleaning up indoor areas that have been left untouched for a while: like a vacation home.

We asked the experts what you can do to protect your home before closing it back up for the season.

As the weather cools down, North Dakotans and Minnesotans start to close up their lake houses and RVs until next summer.

But one North Dakota woman is dead from a virus more commonly associated with opening up a home than closing it down. NDDoH field epidemiologist, Brenton Nesemeier, explains that an indoor area left untouched for an extended period of time may accumulate rodent droppings that could be infectious to breathe in.

"It could be a shed, an outbuilding, a barn...anything that you may not go into on a routine basis where rodents have a possibility of making a nest," Nesemeier said.

Nesemeier says Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome is contracted by an infected rodent's droppings, urine and saliva.

"Breathing it in from like kicking it up, during cleaning of outhouses…generally if it's something that's closed up for a while, you're gonna have less people trekking in and out, so you're gonna have a higher likelihood of active rodent population," he said.

In this case, the N.D. woman, from the Northeast region of the state, was said to have possibly had this type of exposure. So why now, when people are more likely to be shutting homes down than opening them up?

"It can happen year round,” Nesemeier said, “whenever you're around that mouse population."

He says it just has to be an area where rodents dwell.

"You know, you run out to your shed," he said.

Nesemeier says the virus is rare here in North Dakota: the last case we saw in state was in 2016. But according to the North Dakota Game and Fish department, at least two species of mice here carry the virus.

Conservation biologist, Patrick Isakson, tells us the white-footed mouse and the deer mouse both carry the virus.

“And those are two very common rodents in North Dakota," he said.

So what are some prevention measures?

When first opening an area unattended for some time:

The NDDoH recommends opening all your doors and windows and letting them ventilate for at least 30 minutes. Nesemeier says to avoid sweeping the area.

"When you're sweeping up a dry area, you create that dust that's why we recommend when cleaning these outbuildings, do a wet mopping and wipe it up with a towel, versus using a dry broom," he said.

The NDDoH says to use gloves and paper towels to pick up any rat droppings, and to first wet the area using disinfectant spray.

But now that folks are getting ready to close up their homes for the season, what can you do to keep them cleaner while you're gone? For one thing, Nesemeier says, minimize holes outside your home.

"So if you have broken windows, patching them up," he said.

And tightly seal up any leftover food.

"And then lift up any of the hay or anything like that off the ground so that they're not nesting on the ground...if you're worried about mice, make sure to set up a mouse trap or two," he said.

The upside? Nesemeier says the virus is caught from breathing in infected rodents’ dust—and it's not contracted from person to person.

For symptoms and further preventative measures, see below and click on the extra links added to the story.

Hantavirus-Related Death Reported in North Dakota

BISMARCK, N.D. – The North Dakota Department of Health (NDDoH) announced today that a resident of North Dakota has become sick and passed away from Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS), a rare but potentially fatal disease spread by infected rodent droppings, urine and saliva. The individual, an adult female from the northeast portion of the state, did have possible contact with rodent urine or droppings or rodents in the environment.

People can be exposed to hantavirus by breathing in air contaminated with the virus when fresh rodent dropping, urine, or nesting materials are disturbed. The greatest risk is associated with exposure to rodent droppings in closed, dry areas. Hantavirus is not transmitted from person to person.

“People need to be mindful of the presence or evidence of wild rodents or rodent nests when conducting clean-up activities in a house, barn or other buildings, especially in rural areas,” said Jill Baber, epidemiologist for the NDDoH. “It is important to avoid actions that stir up dust, such as sweeping or vacuuming, if signs of rodents are present.”

The NDDoH recommends the following steps to safely clean up areas with possible rodent infestation:

• Ventilate the space by opening the doors and windows for 30 minutes. You should leave the area during this period.

• Do not stir up dust by sweeping or vacuuming up droppings, urine, or nesting materials.

• Wear gloves and spray dead rodents, droppings or nesting materials with disinfectant. Use a paper towel to pick up the urine and droppings and dispose of the waste in the garbage.

• Mop floors and clean countertops, cabinets and drawers with disinfectant.

• Wash your hands with soap and water immediately after the cleanup.

• Do not have young children assist with cleanup of potentially infectious material.

Symptoms of HPS can occur up to six weeks after exposure, with most cases showing symptoms within about two weeks. Early symptoms commonly include fever, muscle and body aches, fatigue, headache, dizziness, chills, nausea and vomiting. Within a few days the illness progresses to include coughing and severe shortness of breath as the lungs fill with fluid. Anyone with exposure to wild rodents who experiences these symptoms should contact their physician and tell them about their exposure.

The last reported case in North Dakota was in 2016. Including this case, there have been 16 cases of HPS that have been reported to the NDDoH since 1993, when the virus was first recognized in the United States. Eight of the sixteen cases were fatal. Nationally, through January 2017, 728 cases have been reported with 36 percent resulting in death. More than 96 percent of all cases in the U.S. have occurred in states west of the Mississippi River.

A fact sheet containing important precautions to minimize the risk of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome infection is available For more information, contact Jill Baber, North Dakota Department of Health, at 701.328.2378.