Health officials urge precautions to avoid hantavirus after recent death

Published on May 30, 2018

Health officials have confirmed that a Placer County resident who recently died tested positive for hantavirus. The resident likely contracted the virus from rodents in a private residence in the Lake Tahoe region where the resident lived and worked. Health officials do not believe the public is at ongoing risk from the source of infection associated with the fatality.

"We are very sorry to announce that hantavirus was involved in this tragic death of one of our community members," said Placer County Health Officer Dr. Rob Oldham. "This unfortunate loss reminds us that hantavirus is very dangerous. But the silver lining is that hantavirus infections are quite rare and can be prevented. It appears that the source associated with this fatal infection has been cleaned.”

Hantavirus can be carried by rodents, which shed the virus in their urine, droppings and saliva. People get infected when they breathe air contaminated with the virus. Most commonly this happens when someone stirs up rodent droppings or nesting material while cleaning a contaminated room such as a shed or a cabin. The virus is not transmitted person to person.

Symptoms of hantavirus infection typically appear within two to four weeks after an exposure, but can appear as early as one week or as late as eight weeks after infection. First symptoms are like the flu: fever, headache and abdominal, back and joint pain. Sometimes there is nausea and vomiting. The main symptom is difficulty breathing, which is caused by fluid building up in the lungs. People should seek medical help if symptoms appear after direct or indirect exposure to rodents, but especially if they experience difficulty breathing.

In the western United States deer mice are the host for the virus. Some activities that increase the risk of exposure to hantavirus in California include:

  1. Opening and cleaning a previously unused building, especially in rural settings.
  2. House cleaning, if there is a rodent infestation, especially by sweeping or dry mopping. (Signs of infestation may include droppings, gnaw marks, nests, noises and more.)
  3. Construction, utility and pest control workers can be exposed when they work in crawl spaces, under houses or in vacant buildings.
  4. Campers and hikers can be exposed when they use infested trail shelters or camp in rodent habitat.

To minimize the risk of hantavirus infection, follow these simple measures:

  1. Avoid contact with all wild rodents, their droppings and nesting materials.
  2. Before entering an enclosed area that may be infested with rodents, allow it to air out for at least 30 minutes.
  3. Do not dry sweep or vacuum areas that rodents have potentially contaminated.
  4. Surfaces that rodents may have contaminated with urine or droppings should be made wet with a 10 percent bleach solution or a commercial disinfectant following label directions before mopping up.
  5. Promptly dispose of all cleaning materials when done, and thoroughly wash hands and clothes.
  6. Examine the outside of all buildings and seal any holes or other areas that would let rodents get inside.
  7. Store all food items securely in rodent-proof containers.

Find more information on hantavirus from the California Department of Public Health including videos on how to trap and clean up rodents, as well as resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.