Hantavirus threatens rural areas

Disease spread by deer mice

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— Seven years ago, Terry Arnold of Craig became the first known survivor of the hantavirus in Colorado.

The sickness started out as what she thought was the common flu. Arnold went to work one day at 7 a.m. and by 9 a.m. she was dizzy and sick. "As a matter of fact, I don't even know how I got home," she said.

Two days later she was admitted to The Memorial Hospital in Craig. "They didn't know what I had," Arnold said.

She stayed two days in the Craig hospital until her lungs began filling up with fluid. Arnold passed out.

A lethal complication of the hantavirus is that it causes a victim's lungs fill up with liquid, which can mean suffocation.

"I remember Flight for Life coming to take me to Denver and they gave me some drugs," Arnold said.

On the flight, Arnold's heart stopped beating. The crew managed to revive her, but when the plane touched down, the prognosis wasn't good.

"They didn't give me any hope for living," she said.

However, with the help of a new drug and Arnold's will to live, she recovered.

"It wasn't until two weeks later until we figured out what it was," Arnold said.

Arnold lives in the country west of Craig. Though she doesn't know how she caught the hantavirus, anyone in rural areas can be at risk.

There are more reported cases of the hantavirus this year in Colorado than ever before, and people in rural areas are being warned to take precautions. So far this year, six cases of the hantavirus have been reported in Colorado, and two people have died of it.

Last year, four people were infected with the virus and in 1998 there were five.

Since 1985, 26 people have contracted the hantavirus and 13 have died. Those cases were in 16 different counties, most of them on the Western Slope.

Symptoms of the virus include fever, chills, headache and muscle aches in the lower back and legs.

Though hantavirus cases are on the rise, it's relatively a newly discovered virus. In the past, it was often misdiagnosed but now more accurate numbers are being reported, Colorado State University wildlife specialist Bill Andellt said.

"Colorado and the Four Corners area is where it was first identified. Since then (about 10 years ago) it's been identified in other states," he said.

The virus is passed from host to victim through dust particles. Deer mice, which live in Routt County, are the primary hosts. They pass the virus through their urine and fecal matter.

If a person breaths in dust particles in an enclosed area where the mice live, they risk infection, Routt County Director of Environmental Services Mike Zopf said.

"I wouldn't call it a threat in Routt County, but it is present in most counties in the state," he said.

There have been reported cases of the hantavirus in Routt County but the virus had been picked up in other parts of the state, Zopf said.

Agricultural producers could be the most at risk for the hantavirus.

Deer mice are common in most rural areas in Colorado and tend to nest in barns.

"When you sweep up in those areas, the dust could be ingested," Zopf said.

Most of the people in Colorado who became infected by the virus got it from cleaning out a barn or building in a rural area.

It's estimated that 15 percent of deer mice in Colorado carry the virus, but that number can vary.

Colorado's chief medical officer, Dr. Richard Hoffman, issued a warning to rural areas. He urged people to be careful to let structures air out before entering them.

Zopf said after airing out a structure, a part-bleach, part-water mixture should be spread to disinfect the area. A high efficiency particulate air filter mask also should be worn. A painters mask or a surgical masked can work, too.

Mice-control efforts can be taken to ensure that structures don't get infested with the urine and fecal matter of mice. They include plugging holes that mice can use as entrances, setting traps, removing hiding places such as junk and brush piles and storing firewood at least 100 feet from the house.

Terry Arnold suggests that people not be hesitant about seeing someone if they have persistent symptoms.

"If anyone has the flu for over 24 hours, you should go see a doctor," she said.

To reach Doug Crowl call 871-4206 or e-mail dcrowl@amigo.net

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