October 13, 2012

Suspected hantavirus case in the Adirondacks


---- — KEENE — A suspected case of hantavirus has been traced to a mouse bite in a High Peaks lean-to.

The illness is a potentially fatal pathogen transmitted by rodents.

Usually, people contract the virus by breathing airborne particles of deer mice droppings and urine.

But Dr. Michael T. Vaughan, a professor of mineral physics at Stony Brook University, on a hiking trip at Mount Marcy Aug. 26, was awakened by a nibble on his finger that drew blood.

Mindful of rodent-borne disease, he sought medical care when he began to feel sick.

“I was bitten,” he said in a teleconference call Friday. “I knew all about these rodent-carrying diseases. A month later, when I saw my physician and was feeling ill, she sent me to the hospital. I was admitted to the hospital on a Friday (Sept. 28) and pretty much recovered by Tuesday, when I was released.”


The incubation period for hantavirus varies from one to six weeks, according to information from the Centers for Disease Control.

In an interview, Dr. Rekha Sivadas, a physician at Stony Brook Hospital, confirmed a blood test came back positive for hantavirus antibodies. 

“The initial lab result is in, still to be confirmed by the state and the CDC,” Dr. Sivadas said Friday.

“Based on their (Utah lab) criteria, the tests are being reported as positive. That’s why we are saying this is suspected at this time but not confirmed.”


Of 24 hantavirus cases reported in the United States last year, a dozen were fatal, according to CDC records posted online.

The virus, which Sivadas said exists naturally throughout the environment, can advance to become hantavirus pulmonary syndrome. 

It was first discovered in the United States in the Four Corners area of the Southwest in 1993.

“There are at least 30 different species of hantavirus found in different pockets all over the U.S. They are different variants of the same virus,” Sivadas said.

The outbreak in 1993 occurred as the population of mice erupted exponentially after two years of drought.

“The key thing, in the Southwest it’s very arid,” Vaughan said.“In the Northeast, it’s more humid, and dust is less common. That’s why I think the bite was the root of infection in my case. I was sleeping.”

The suspected Adirondack hantavirus case follows an outbreak in Yosemite National Park this summer, with nine confirmed cases, including three deaths.


There is no known medical therapy for hantavirus infection, Sivadas said. The illness is treated with supportive care and close monitoring for respiratory stress.

CDC results on Vaughan’s case are expected in a week to 10 days.

As of Friday, there was no official alert for hantavirus in the Adirondacks. 

“If it is confirmed, DEC will assist DOH to investigate how the virus was transmitted to the person and take any other appropriate action as determined by DOH guidance and direction,” DEC spokeswoman Lisa King said Friday.

CDC records online indicate four cases of the disease did occur in New York state this year.

This may be the first known case of hantavirus in Essex County.

“It isn’t something that we have seen here,” said Kathy Daggett, director of preventative services at Essex County Public Health Department. 


And there was no further information about if or when DEC might trap and test mice for hantavirus in the High Peaks.

“I hope they are,” Vaughan said. “But there are probably 10,000 mice per square mile in that area.

“The State Department of Health does do a great deal of work conducting surveillance for hantavirus,” Sivadas said.

Vaughan, who was bitten in Uphill lean-to near Mount Marcy, coordinates 44.108890 N, 73.960410W, suggested hikers remain wary and keep camping and lean-to areas clean to help keep mice at bay.

“Hikers are messy. They leave scraps of food around,” he said. “CDC has guidelines for preventive measures.”

Symptoms of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome include “high fever, muscle aches, cough and headache. After several days, respiratory problems worsen rapidly. The lungs may fill with fluid, and victims may die of respiratory failure or shock,” according to state DOH reports online.

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