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I am concerned about hantavirus. What can you tell me?

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For many, warm weather signals the time for spring cleaning, both inside and out. Inside cleaning often includes organizing winter’s accumulation of equipment and tools, which may also house overwintering insects, spiders and rodents.

If we share a home or out building with rodents, there is also the possibility of exposure to hantavirus. A recent alert by USU Extension Veterinarian Clell Bagley warned that states surrounding Utah have recently reported human hantavirus infections, occurring earlier this year than expected. Cases of hantavirus occur primarily in the spring and early summer – which coincides with activities such as spring cleaning garages and sheds, or opening summer homes where mice may have taken up residence for the winter.

Hantavirus infection is usually spread by inhaling the virus, which is in droppings, urine and saliva of infected rodents. Although uncommon, the virus can also be passed to humans through a rodent bite. The common deer mouse is generally the vector of the disease in the western United States. Deer mice are about 2-3 inches in length, with a tail equally as long. They come in a variety of colors from gray to reddish brown with a white underbelly and a tail with sharply defined white sides.

Humans contract the disease when they breathe air permeated with the virus. The danger occurs when breathing contaminated dust while working in or cleaning a problem area. There is a greater potential for problems from hantavirus during wet years, since increased vegetation supports a larger rodent population. The best strategy for preventing hantavirus infection is to control rodents in and around the home. Consider these tips.

Begin by sealing holes inside and outside to prevent entry. Check for gaps or holes the size of a pencil or larger. Keep grass and shrubs away from the foundation of the house to discourage rodents from nesting. Potential entryways are around windows and doors and electrical, plumbing and gas lines. Reduce rodent populations around the home by trapping. Choose an appropriate snap trap. Follow instructions printed on the package before setting the trap using a small amount of peanut butter (about the size of a pea). Position the end of the trap next to the wall so it forms a “T” with the wall. Place traps in outbuildings and areas that may shelter rodents. Spray trapped mice with disinfectant and place in a double plastic bag for disposal. Predators such as non-poisonous snakes, owls and hawks may also help reduce the number of rodents in an area.

Take precautions before and while cleaning rodent-infested spaces. Open doors and windows for cross ventilation and leave the area for at least 30 minutes. When cleaning, do not stir up dust by sweeping or vacuuming droppings or nesting materials. Wear rubber, latex, vinyl or nitrile gloves. For severely contaminated areas, obtain and use a respirator during the cleaning process. Spray urine and droppings with a disinfectant or a mixture of bleach and water, allowing it to soak for 5 minutes. Use a paper towel to pick up droppings and place in a plastic bag. Steam clean or shampoo upholstered furniture and carpets. Wash bedding and clothing in hot water and wash gloved hands with soap and water or spray a disinfectant or bleach solution on gloves before removing them.

Posted on 7 Apr 2006

Loralie Cox
Horticulture Agent, Cache County

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