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Hantavirus, spread mainly by rodents, can cause a rare but often fatal disease called Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS). Early symptoms of HPS are flu-like and include fever, headache, nausea, vomiting, muscle aches, abdominal pain, shortness of breath, tiredness, coughing and difficulty breathing. Symptoms can begin within a few days or up to six weeks (typically 2-3 weeks) after exposure. Infection without symptoms is rare.
HPS can progress rapidly into serious complications, including severe respiratory failure or death. Between 1994 and 2021, 36 cases of HPS have been reported in Saskatchewan. Twelve cases resulted in death.
Hantavirus can infect people of all ages and genders. People are at risk of infection if they are exposed to deer mice, their droppings or nesting materials. Most people are exposed when cleaning out or demolishing enclosed or poorly ventilated buildings with mouse infestations (i.e. grain bins, sheds, barns, garages, ventilation systems, trailers, elevators, etc.) or cleaning stored equipment such as combines or vehicles.
In western North America, deer mice (Peromyscus maniculatus) are the primary carriers of the particular strain of hantavirus that causes respiratory illness in people.
Deer mice are found throughout Saskatchewan in a variety of indoor and outdoor habitats. They are more common in rural and semi-rural areas than in urban areas. Deer mice construct nests in stumps, hollow tree cavities, under logs, abandoned bird nests, wood piles, old cars or buildings such as sheds, granaries, garages and cottages. They may enter buildings when the weather turns colder.
Compared to house mice or field mice, deer mice have relatively large eyes and ears, long tails and are bicoloured. The belly and underside of their body is white, and the back and upper part of their tail is dark brown or gray.
Humans are most often exposed to the virus when they breathe in air contaminated by deer mouse saliva, urine or feces containing infectious hantaviruses. This can occur, for example, after sweeping or vacuuming infected areas.
Other ways Hantavirus can be transmitted to people include:
Hantaviruses are rarely, if ever, spread from person to person; this has never been reported in North America. Hantaviruses are not spread from livestock. Human cases have been associated with exposure to domestic (pet) rats. Cats and dogs may bring infected deer mice into contact with humans.
Exposure to hantavirus can be reduced by avoiding contact with rodents and contaminated airborne particles.
When cleaning rodent-infested areas, people are advised to avoid activities that raise dust, and prevent direct contact and inhalation of airborne virus.
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