Headed outdoors? Familiarize yourself with Hantavirus

Rodents can carry dangerous pathogens like hantavirus. Hantaviruses are a family of viruses found worldwide. Photo by Bernd Wolter/Shutterstock.com

As warmer weather approaches and we find ourselves spending more time outdoors, Public Health Command Europe wants to ensure the community is aware of a lesser-known disease known as Hantavirus.

According to PHCE officials, every year, several Hantavirus cases are reported within Europe’s military community. With warmer weather, people tend to spend more time outdoors; go on nature walks; and venture into their tool sheds for some spring cleaning. Before you do, it is important to take some precautions and educate yourself on the symptoms, risks, and preventive measures to avoid Hantavirus exposure.

People are exposed to Hantavirus disease through aerosolized urine, saliva, or droppings from infected rodents. This means that simply sweeping out a dirty shed or crawling around in dusty areas frequented by rodents, could put you in contact with the disease.

“The good news is that Hantavirus is not known to be carried by commonly-owned pet rodents, such as Guinea pigs, hamsters, or gerbils,” said Lt. Renee Howell, European Regional Army Public Health Senior Nurse. “Additionally, the most common Hantavirus strain found in Europe, Puumala Hantavirus, generally causes milder disease symptoms compared to the more severe Hantavirus types that you may have read about in the news and that are found in the United States.”

Between 80-95 percent of those exposed to the strain found in Europe do not get sick or develop symptoms.

“The symptoms of Hantavirus disease are non-specific and typically are marked by a sudden onset of fever and flu-like symptoms that include muscle aches, stomach pain, and vomiting,” Howell said. “However, in some individuals, severe disease can cause kidney failure.”

PHCE says the best protection against Hantavirus is to avoid exposure to wild rodents and their excrement. Avoid disturbing dusty sheds, barns, attics, and other confined spaces that may have rodent nests.

If you are going to clean an area that may have been exposed to rodents, Howell says it is best to air the area out prior to doing anything.

Additionally, Howell said to “wear a dust mask and moisten dusty surfaces with water before sweeping them out to avoid aerosolization.”

Additionally, if possible, open doors and windows to increase ventilation. After cleaning, be sure to shower or wash your hands and face thoroughly with soap and water.

Another tactic to reduce your risk of exposure is to limit rodent access into your home and other areas by eliminating possible food sources, setting traps, sealing up holes or other access points, repairing screens, and ensuring the weather seals on doors (to include pet doors) are intact.

Safety precautions are also important when engaging in outdoor activities, such as hiking and gardening. Hikers are advised to stay on walking paths, keep food properly sealed, and stay away from rodents.

“Rodents do not show outward symptoms when they are infected,” Howell said, “and the virus can remain infective in the environment for a long time. Gardeners should moisten the area they will be working to avoid aerosolizing the dust and practice good hand washing at breaks and when finished with their chores.”

If you experience flu-like symptoms after working in a dusty area that may have had rodents present, bring this to the attention of your primary health care provider as soon as possible.

To find out more about Hantavirus please visit: https://www.cdc.gov/hantavirus/index.html