According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rats and mice are responsible for spreading more than 35 diseases worldwide.
You might have heard stories out of King County about several people who were exposed to a rare, but sometimes deadly, disease called hantavirus. In Washington, the hantavirus comes from a specific species of mouse — deer mice. Deer mice live throughout western Canada and the United States, all the way down to Mexico. The mice are most common in rural or suburban areas.
People can get sick when they breathe dust from the dried urine, droppings or saliva of these mice, or from touching infected mice or their nests. The cases in King County serve as a good reminder that precautions should be taken when you think you have mice in your car or in your home.
Mice can enter your home through holes as small as a nickel. Look for gaps or holes inside, under, and behind kitchen cabinets, refrigerators and stoves. Also check inside closets near the floor corners, and around windows and doors. Mice can nest in the engine compartment of a car, in the trunk, or anywhere throughout the passenger compartment. They can even nest in the tailpipe.
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The CDC offers clear advice on what to do if you’ve got a problem with mice, or wish to prevent one. First, block any holes, inside or outside that might be used by a mouse. One way to do this, is to use steel wool. Rodents can’t chew through it, and it’s easy to find at a local hardware store. To trap rats or mice, use a snap trap that’s appropriate for the kind of rodent you’re trying to catch. Use caution when placing your traps, and place them in areas that can’t be reached by children or pets. Lastly, prevent mice from moving in by removing food sources and nesting sites. The CDC offers detailed instructions on what you can do if you discover you have mice in your home.
Hantavirus is rare, but you can watch for some symptoms if you think you’ve been exposed to deer mice. It can take one to eight weeks for symptoms to appear, and at first those symptoms can be very similar to the flu, including a fever, muscle aches and vomiting. Most cases in Washington (up to five a year) occur during May through July. If you believe you have been exposed, talk to your doctor. Tests can determine whether you have hantavirus.
The best way to prevent hantavirus is to avoid contact with wild rodents. If you have an area or outbuilding that’s infested, avoid raising dust with a broom or vacuum. Instead, air the space out for at least 30 minutes and soak everything with a disinfectant. The CDC recommends 1 part bleach to 9 parts water. Once possible contaminants have soaked for 10 minutes, the state health department advises wearing rubber, latex or vinyl gloves, and double-bagging any contaminated material. Hantavirus, though rare, can be life-threatening. Take simple precautions to reduce your risk.
Reach Dr. Rachel C. Wood, health officer for Thurston and Lewis counties, at 360-867-2501, firstname.lastname@example.org, or @ThurstonHealth on Twitter.