Officials: Rats carrying hantavirus can be deadly

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Montana health officials have warned people to keep an eye out for rats this spring to avoid an infection that — while uncommon — can be fatal.

The infection is called hantavirus. Montana has one of the highest rates of infection in the United States, with 43 cases of hantavirus reported since its recognition in 1993. About 25 percent of Montana’s cases have resulted in death.

“Although hantavirus infection can occur during any month, the risk of exposure is increased in the spring and summer as people clean cabins and sheds, and spend more time outside in the vicinity of rodents,” said Rachel Hinnenkamp, an epidemiologist with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

The illness can progress into the respiratory disease Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome, which can kill those it infects.

According to the state health department, studies have shown that deer mice are the most common host of the virus and are well dispersed throughout Montana.

People can become infected with hantavirus when saliva, urine, or droppings from an infected mouse are stirred up and inhaled. So if there are signs of rodents in the area, it’s important to avoid activities that raise dust, such as sweeping or vacuuming.

Early symptoms of the infection can include fatigue, fever and muscle aches with progression include coughing and extreme shortness of breath.

Medical care is essential to survival and, if diagnosed early, specific antiviral medications may help with recovery.

According to Montana health officials, the best way to stay safe from hantavirus is to control rodent populations near homes by sealing up holes to prevent entry and using snap traps to eliminate any mice indoors.

People can also keep grass and shrubbery near their home well-trimmed and move woodpiles at least 100 feet from the house and store at least one foot off the ground.

Reporter Katheryn Houghton may be reached at 758-4436 or by email at khoughton@dailyinterlake.com.

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