How can you prevent a hantavirus infection?

Hantavirus has been in the news lately due to the deaths of two people from the disease at Yosemite National Park. Now park officials say 1,700 visitors could be at risk of infection; the visitors, who stayed in the “Signature Tent Cabins” this summer, have received letters and emails informing them that they could have been exposed to hantavirus.

The disease is spread to humans from rodent droppings or inhaled through particles in the air. (Regarding hantavirus infection spread in the air, the Mayo Clinic provides a good example: “For example, a broom used to clean up mouse droppings in an attic may nudge into the air tiny particles of feces containing hantaviruses, which you can then easily inhale,” they say on the hantavirus section of their website.)

It does not spread between humans, and rodents do not become sick from the disease. While the infections in the news occurred in a park, people can become infected in their own homes by cleaning out a shed or a part of their house that’s been closed up for a long time. Early symptoms of hantavirus can seem flu-like, and, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, people may begin to feel better for one to two days before things get worse. Many people end up in the hospital’s intensive care unit.

Scary stuff, right? But how worried should you be about hantavirus, and more importantly, what can you do to prevent an infection?

“The virus thrives in drier climates out West and in mountainous regions, and fortunately, doesn’t spread from person to person so those who might have been exposed to it don’t need to be quarantined,” writes Deborah Kotz of the Boston Globe on boston.com.

But if you do live in an area where hantavirus is more common — or you plan on going camping one last time before summer ends — there are some important things you need to know. And if you think you’ve been infected after coming in contact with rodent droppings, contact your healthcare provider.

From the CDC and U.S. National Library of Medicine:

Avoid exposure to rodent urine and droppings.

  • When hiking and camping, pitch tents in areas where there are no rodent droppings.
  • Avoid rodent dens.
  • Drink disinfected water.
  • Sleep on a ground cover and pad.
  • Keep your home clean. Clear out potential nesting sites and clean your kitchen.

If you must work in an area where contact with rodent urine or feces is possible, follow these recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  1. When opening an unused cabin, shed, or other building, open all the doors and windows, leave the building, and allow the space to air out for 30 minutes.
  2. Return to the building and spray the surfaces, carpet, and other areas with a disinfectant. Leave the building for another 30 minutes.
  3. Spray mouse nests and droppings with a 10% solution of chlorine bleach or similar disinfectant. Allow it to sit for 30 minutes. Using rubber gloves, place the materials in plastic bags. Seal the bags and throw them in the trash or an incinerator. Dispose of gloves and cleaning materials in the same way.
  4. Wash all potentially contaminated hard surfaces with a bleach or disinfectant solution. Avoid vacuuming until the area has been thoroughly decontaminated. Then, vacuum the first few times with enough ventilation. Surgical masks may provide some protection.
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