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Flagstaff woman’s death calls attention to dangerous rodent virus

PHOENIX — Coconino County health officials are actively collecting and testing mice in the Flagstaff area in an attempt to figure where a local woman came into contact with infected rodent droppings or urine.

The woman died recently from complications of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS).

“We just don’t know,” said Marlene Gaither of the Coconino County Environmental Health Division.

Health officials say the incubation period is one to six weeks for HPS, which means researchers are working backwards to find the infected rodents. They are checking “all the activities that she did, places she would have hung out, places she might have cleaned,” Gaither said.

The illness starts with fever, headache and muscle aches, and progresses rapidly to severe difficulty in breathing and, in some cases, death.

“The last reported case in Coconino County was 2007 and the individual ultimately recovered. Including this case, there have been 22 confirmed Hantavirus cases in Arizona since 2006, 11 of which have resulted in death” said Gaither.

“The cases we’ve had have been everywhere,” she added. “It’s not just in Coconino County, it’s not just in the mountains. We’ve had cases in the desert.”

To prevent HPS, the Coconino County Public Health Services District recommends the following:

Proper clean-up methods for areas that may have rodent activity:

• Open all door and windows; leave them open for 30 minutes before cleaning.

• Do not stir up dust by vacuuming, sweeping or any other means.

• When rodent droppings or nests are found in and around the home, spray them liberally with a household disinfectant and allow them to soak for at least 15 minutes. Any rodent droppings and rodent nests should be sprayed with a pesticide to kill fleas before disinfecting or disposing of the carcasses.

• After disinfecting, wear rubber gloves and clean up the droppings with disposable materials such as paper towels, rags or disposable mop heads.

• Seal all materials, droppings or nests in double plastic bags and dispose of them in the trash.

Rodent-proof your home:

• Prevent rodents from entering the home by plugging or sealing all holes and gaps to the outside greater than 1/4-inch in diameter. Use steel wool, thick wire screen, metal flashing or cement to seal holes.

• Eliminate or reduce rodent shelter around the home by removing outdoor junk and clutter, and by moving woodpiles, lumber, hay bales, etc., as far away from the house as possible.

• Do not make food easily available to rodents. Do not leave pet food in dishes. Dispose of garbage in trash cans with tight-fitting lids.

Certain forms of outdoor recreation, such as camping and hiking, can pose a risk for Hantavirus exposure. A few precautions should be taken, including:

• Campers should not pitch tents or place sleeping bags in close proximity to rodent nests, burrows or in areas of heavy rodent activity.

• Before use, properly clean tents and other camping gear that have been stored where rodents may have had access.

• If possible, do not sleep on the bare ground and zip tents closed to keep animals out.

• Use only bottled water or water that has been disinfected by filtration, boiling, chlorination or iodination for drinking, cooking, washing dishes and brushing teeth.