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Rare Rodent-Borne Virus Surfaces in Vermont

First case of hantavirus lung disease found in New England

MONDAY, July 23, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The federal government has reported the first case of hantavirus lung disease in New England, and public health officials are offering advice on avoiding this rodent-borne and potentially fatal illness.

Hantavirus infection is rare enough for a single case to warrant a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It was first described in the United States in 1993, when an outbreak of an unexplained lung disease in the Southwest affected dozens of people, killing 27. The disease was traced to a virus carried by deer mice and spread through the air.

Sporadic cases have occurred throughout the United States, says Susan Schoenfeld, from the Vermont Department of Health. She is the author of the CDC report, which appears in the July 20 Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The only previous New England patient was a Rhode Island resident who was exposed to the virus in New York. Only 15 of the 284 cases in the United States have occurred east of the Mississippi River.

The Vermont case was diagnosed in February when a 61-year-old man went to the hospital with typical symptoms of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome -- chills, fever, nausea, vomiting, loss of appetite and several fainting episodes. He spent 23 days in the hospital, 16 of them in intensive care because of respiratory failure that required mechanical ventilation. There is no treatment for the infection; doctors do what they can to relieve the symptoms.

"We know we have the rodents who can carry this virus," says Schoenfeld. "They are not uncommon in a rural state like Vermont."

When alert physicians realized what they might be dealing with, a CDC blood test showed signs of the form of the virus that caused the 1993 outbreak. The patient said he had cleaned a mouse nest from a woodpile, seen mice in the basement of his house and trapped two mice under the kitchen counter. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was called in, and it conducted a two-month program that trapped 43 mice. Two of the five deer mice tested positive for the virus.

Hantavirus infection "is rare but still worth being prudent about," Schoenfeld says. The basic message is to "keep rodents out of the home and clean up after them properly," she adds.

There also is a message for health-care providers, she says: When an otherwise healthy individual shows up with a serious respiratory infection of the kind seen in Vermont, hantavirus should be suspected.

What To Do

The CDC has a detailed list of preventive measures, says Nicole Coffin, a spokeswoman for the agency.

For example, when going to an unoccupied cabin, let it air out for at least an hour. If rodent droppings are seen, don't sweep them up because that could release the virus into the air. Don't set up an outdoor campsite near woodpiles or garbage areas that attract rodents. Use gloves and disinfectant when handling trapped rodents and rodent droppings. Don't disturb a rodent that becomes visible, but do set traps for it. And serve food in rodent-proof containers.

All you need to know about hantavirus can be found at the CDC or the Hantavirus Information Network.

SOURCES: Interviews with Susan Schoenfeld, MSPH, head of epidemiology unit, Vermont Department of Health, Burlington; Nicole Coffin, spokeswoman, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; July 20, 2001, Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
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