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Spokane man dies from hantavirus after likely exposure in Adams County

UPDATED: Fri., July 7, 2017

Deer mice, found almost everywhere in North America, are carriers of hantavirus, which causes a rare but potentially fatal syndrome. (James Gathany / Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Deer mice, found almost everywhere in North America, are carriers of hantavirus, which causes a rare but potentially fatal syndrome. (James Gathany / Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

A Spokane man in his 50s has died from complications related to hantavirus, a rare respiratory illness usually spread through mice droppings.

The man was likely exposed to the virus in a barn in Adams County, the Spokane Regional Health District and Adams County Health Department said in a news release Thursday.

He became sick in late June and died several days later, health district epidemiologist Malia Nogle said. The health district received test results Monday confirming the man had hantavirus.

The case is the first recorded hantavirus death in Spokane County since the disease was first recognized in 1993. Adams County has had five confirmed cases since 1994, with the most recent in 2014, and one death in 2009, the release said.

This is Washington’s fifth case of hantavirus disease this year and third death. That’s the highest number of cases in a single year in Washington since 1999, according to the Washington Department of Health.

“We want to acknowledge how tragic this unexpected death must be for this man’s family and friends,” said Dr. Bob Lutz, SRHD health officer. “Although the reality is this type of death is rare in our area, we need to balance it with a message of precaution.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have counted between 11 and 48 cases of hantavirus disease per year since the virus was discovered. On average, cases were fatal about 36 percent of the time.

Deer mice are the only carriers of hantavirus in the Northwest. Exposure typically occurs in enclosed, poorly-ventilated areas infested with mice. The virus can get into the air as mist or dust when mice droppings are disturbed and can then be inhaled by humans.

“It could happen in a barn, it could happen in an RV that’s been sitting out for the winter,” said Nogle.

The best way to prevent infection is to look out for mice nests, droppings or mice themselves. People cleaning up mice feces or nests should wear gloves and a mask, Nogle said, and wet down material with a diluted bleach solution before cleaning it so it doesn’t become aerosolized.

The virus cannot be transmitted from person to person.

Tests of deer mice in Washington have shown about 14 percent are positive for the virus.

Hantavirus disease causes flu-like symptoms in humans, typically starting one to three weeks after exposure. Symptoms include fever, chills and muscle aches, followed by rapid onset of respiratory distress and shortness of breath. There is no vaccine or cure for the disease other than supportive care.

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