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State's first Hantavirus case: Don't panic, just be cautious about rodent exposure

National Park Service

Yes, it’s a rare virus that people can get from animals (specifically mice, in this case.) And yes, it can be fatal, and has symptoms like fever, fatigue, and cough. 

But the Washtenaw County woman who was recently hospitalized with the state’s first confirmed case of Hantavirus isn’t the beginning of another pandemic - just a good reminder to be smart about rodent exposure. 

“Even though this isn't common and we don't think it's running rampant, I think that it's certainly wise advice to take those precautions when cleaning, when you know that there are rodents around,” said Dr. Emily Abdoler, an infectious disease expert at Michigan Medicine who’s helping to treat this patient. 

Hantavirus isn’t new, but it’s very rare: the US only sees between 20-40 cases of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) each year on average, primarily in the West during the spring and summer, according to the CDC.

And typically, it’s spread when the virus gets into the air from contaminated mice droppings, saliva, or nesting materials. People who go into uninhabited places where there’ve been rodent infestations, like cabins, barns, or construction sites, can breathe the virus in or get it on their skin.   

“The individual was likely exposed when cleaning an unoccupied dwelling that contained signs of an active rodent infestation,” the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement Monday. 

But unlike COVID-19,Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome cannot be spread from person to person. 

“Things such as seeing a rodent while out for a walk or a hike pose no risk to you,” said Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, a spokesperson for Washtenaw County Health Department, in an email Monday. “Similarly, if your pet finds or kills a rodent, neither dogs nor cats can transmit hantavirus to humans. If that happens, be sure to dispose of the rodent using gloves or a plastic bag and clean any affected area using the instructions on this website.

So if you’re cleaning up an area where you think mice could have been, just air the place out first for 30 minutes, Abdoler says. Wear gloves, and spray the place down with disinfectant. 

And if in the exceedingly rare case you later develop symptoms, let your healthcare provider know, so they can test for Hantavirus. 

“Things like fevers and muscle aches and fatigue, and potentially headache or nausea, vomiting, diarrhea,” Dr. Abdoler said. “If then they start to feel short of breath or get a cough, it's important for them to seek care, and to alert their healthcare providers: I've had exposure to rodent droppings recently.” 

Kate Wells is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently covering public health. She was a 2023 Pulitzer Prize finalist for her abortion coverage.
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