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Officials issue hantavirus warning

Montezuma County public health officials late Friday announced the first death from hantavirus in the region this year and warned Coloradans in the area and surrounding southwest counties of the state to be cautious and avoid exposure to hantavirus when cleaning outdoor areas and before opening up cabins, buildings, sheds and barns.

State health officials reported the death of an adult male occurred on Oct.?19. Originally suspected as hantavirus, final test results from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on Oct. 29 confirmed that the individual tested positive for hantavirus. Local and state public health officials are investigating the case to determine where the individual was exposed.

The last human case of hantavirus in Montezuma County was in 1993 in an adult female who died after exposure in San Miguel County.

In the southwest corner of Colorado, most hantavirus cases have historically been reported in La Plata County, most likely due to the larger human population center of Durango and surrounding towns.

Hantavirus is carried in the saliva, urine and droppings of deer mice, which are rural mice.? Infection occurs when the virus becomes airborne and is inhaled, or by direct contact with rodents, their droppings or nests.? It cannot be transmitted from person to person.

Elisabeth Lawaczeck, state health veterinarian, said, “Before people begin cleaning out building structures, they need to take precautions such as first wetting down the area, particularly if there are accumulations of mouse droppings and other signs of mice.”

Lawaczeck emphasized, “Just vacuuming an area without first wetting it down doesn’t provide the necessary protection.”

Homes can be rodent-proofed by eliminating food sources for rodents and removing abandoned vehicles, wood, brush and junk piles where rodents hide, she said.

Lawaczeck urged people to be particularly careful where there are mouse droppings and evidence that mice have been in and around the buildings or nearby wood or junk piles.? A large, rapid increase in the number of mice around a home often precedes a human case, she said.?

”If you are living or staying in rural areas and have deer mice around, you can assume you and members of your family are at some risk.? The more live mice that are present, the greater the risk, although some people have been infected by directly handling a single mouse,” she said.

If live mice are still occupying the structure, she said rodent control should be done before extensive cleaning efforts.? The structures should be ventilated thoroughly.

Additional precautions that should be taken to provide protection against hantavirus include:

Rodent-proof buildings by plugging holes or other mouse entryways. Conduct year-round rodent control, using traps or poisons, or hire a professional exterminator.

Make home or work areas unattractive to rodents. Keep indoor areas clean, especially kitchens. Store food in rodent-proof containers and properly dispose of garbage in sealed containers. This includes pet, livestock and bird food.

Store firewood at least 100 feet from the house. Keep vegetation around the house well trimmed.

Open doors or windows to provide good ventilation for 30 to 60 minutes before cleaning out structures. Avoid stirring up dust by watering down areas of mouse infestation with a mixture of bleach and water.


Hantavirus, which is deadly in nearly half of the cases, begins with high fever, severe body aches, a headache and vomiting. The onset of these symptoms begins from one week to six weeks after exposure.

Initially, there are no respiratory symptoms present, Lawaczeck said. Symptoms such as a runny nose; sneezing; sinus congestion; and a cough, that produces phlegm, are not associated with hantavirus infection.

However, within one to five days, the illness quickly progresses to respiratory distress, including a cough and difficulty breathing, as the lungs fill with fluid.

Because no effective treatment exists for the disease, Lawaczeck emphasized prevention as the key to avoiding hantavirus.

She said, “When hantavirus infection is suspected or confirmed, early admission to a hospital where careful monitoring, treatment of symptoms and supportive therapy can be provided is most important.”

Deer mouse description

Lawaczeck explained that the small gray house mice commonly found in urban areas do not carry the disease. Deer mice are brown on top and white underneath. They have large ears relative to their head size. House mice on the other hand are all gray and have small ears.