New case of rare hantavirus disease suspected in King County

SEATTLE — Public health officials are investigating the third case of the rare and potentially deadly hantavirus in King County.

They strongly suspect an Issaquah woman in her 50s may have the disease. She’s currently hospitalized in intensive care.

Last month, an Issaquah man his 30s died after he contracted it. And a woman in Redmond barely survived after she got hantavirus in November.

Before this cluster, no one had gotten hantavirus in King County in 14 years.

"It's absolutely heart sinking," Mark Waterbury, of Redmond, said. "It's just like being kicked in the teeth."

He describes the fast moving illness that nearly killed his wife. One day last November, the doctor diagnosed her with the flu. Two days later, she was in the ICU.

Waterbury says his wife is still recovering months later.

“She still has down days and good days but she’s one of the lucky ones in that respect,” Waterbury added.

Deer mice carry the disease. They live in wooded areas.

Public health officials are warning people to take steps to prevent these mice from entering their homes or cars.

"The greatest risk is when people stir up dust that is contaminated with droppings from rodents and that dust is breathed in, and causes the infection," Dr. Jeff Duchin, from Public Health – Seattle & King County, explained.

The man who died and the woman suspected of having hantavirus both lived near Squak Mountain in Issaquah but in different neighborhoods.

With the cases in Issaquah and Redmond, Duchin worries there may be a mini hantavirus hot spot in King County.

“Something may be different this year,” Duchin said. “It may be related to the rainfall that has caused the mice to increase in numbers or to perhaps drive mice to areas where there's more human contact.”

Symptoms can begin 1-8 weeks after inhaling the virus. They're similar to the flu -- fever, headache, muscle aches, weakness, nausea, vomiting and fatigue.

It's important you seek immediate medical care because it could be the difference between life and death.

Duchin said about a third of people who contract the disease die.

And what's even scarier is the people who have gotten it are otherwise healthy -- without any underlying health conditions.

But Waterbury warns the risk is there even if you don't believe you've been exposed to the mice. He suspects mice nested in the ventilation system of his wife's car. Since she became ill, Waterbury started studying and blogging about it on "hantasite.com." And he wants to share this message.

“Don’t be fearful but do be careful,” Waterbury said. “This is a very real threat."

The King County Health Department released this information about hantavirus:

Potential risk activities for HPS include:

  • Opening or cleaning previously unused buildings, cabins, sheds, barns, garages and storage facilities (including those which have been closed during the winter) is a potential risk for hantavirus infections, especially in rural settings.
  • Housecleaning activities in and around homes with rodent infestations.
  • Work-related exposure: Construction, utility and pest control workers can be exposed when they work in crawl spaces, under houses, or in vacant buildings that may have a rodent population.
  • Campers and hikers: Campers and hikers can be exposed when they use infested trail shelters or camp in other rodent habitats.

The chance of being exposed to hantavirus is greatest when people work, play, or live in closed spaces where rodents are actively living. Many people who have contracted HPS reported that they had not seen rodents or their droppings before becoming ill. Therefore, if you live in an area where the deer mice are known to live, take precautions to prevent rodent infestations even if you do not see rodents or their droppings.

Symptoms of hantavirus:

If you have been exposed to rodents or rodent infested buildings and have symptoms, see your doctor immediately and tell them about your possible rodent exposure. Symptoms begin 1-8 weeks after inhaling the virus. It typically starts with 3-5 days of illness that is similar to the flu, including fever, sore muscles, headaches, nausea, vomiting, and fatigue.  As the disease gets worse, it causes coughing and shortness of breath. People with hantavirus are usually hospitalized, and about one out of three people diagnosed with HPS have died.

Preventing hantavirus

Keep wild rodents out of your home and workplace by removing their sources of food, water, and shelter. If you do have a rodent infestation, it's important to take precautions to safely clean up the area. Learn specifically how to prevent rodent infestation and clean up rodent infestations at Public Health's hantavirus factsheet and the CDC website

Heavy rodent infestations

Public Health should be consulted (at 206-263-9566) and special precautions are suggested for cleaning homes or buildings with:

  • heavy rodent infestations (piles of feces, numerous nests or dead rodents)
  • vacant dwellings that have attracted rodents while unoccupied
  • dwellings and other structures that have been occupied by persons with confirmed hantavirus infection.

Public Health recommends hiring professional pest control services in these situations.

Rodent infestations in cars

There have been reports of rodent infestations in vehicles as a possible means of hantavirus exposure. The same principles that are described for cleaning a home infested with rodents would apply to cleaning a vehicle infested with rodents.

More information

For more information and specific instructions to avoid rodents and clean up after an infestation, visit Public Health's Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome website.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) hantavirus web site  is a good source of information on hantavirus risk, transmission, symptoms and prevention measures.

Information from the Washington State Department of Health on hantavirus is available at http://www.doh.wa.gov/YouandYourFamily/IllnessandDisease/Hantavirus

In addition, read the Public Health Insider for our 2015 article https://publichealthinsider.com/2015/10/30/hunting-a-haunting-virus/ about the search for hantavirus.

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