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Home Inspectors At Risk of Exposure to Deadly Virus

The Inspector's Journal (November 10, 2003)

Monday's Seattle Post-Intelligencer carried an article about a 21-year old college student at Skagit Valley College who died last week from complications confirmed to have been caused by Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome, a particularly deadly disease spread by common deer mice.

Concerned that home inspectors who routinely inspect rodent-infested attics and crawlspaces may be at particular risk of exposure and infection, TIJ contacted the Skagit County Public Health Department to learn more. Corinne Story, Public Health Nurse, informed TIJ that the State Health Department was still conducting a follow-up investigation to determine where the student, who died just days after being taken to the hospital suffering from diarrhea and vomiting, was exposed.

According to Story, hantavirus works very quickly. Anyone exposed can begin showing symptoms within a day and reach end stage disease within 5 days. There have been 25 reported cases of hantavirus in Washington State since 1994 - nine of which were fatal (Nationwide, the mortality rate for the virus is 40%). Once infected, there are no antibiotics or known cures. All a hospital can do is provide support while the disease runs its course.

Story recommends that anyone entering rural structures that have been closed up and unoccupied, such as camp cabins, barns or sub-structure areas - anywhere there is likely to be rodent infestation - wear at least a paper filter mask and gloves. Those who frequently inspect crawlspaces or attics should wear a respirator with P100 cartridges, surgical gloves and bag their coveralls until cleaned.

Story suggests home inspectors working in rural areas warn their clients to avoid dry sweeping floors or dusting furniture or shelves in structures which have been closed up. Instead, buildings should be aired out for at least an hour and then floors and surfaces damp mopped, sprayed or wiped down with bleach. (The Seattle P-I story recommended soaking rodent nests with a solution of one part bleach to 10 parts water.)

Story confirmed that hantavirus can't be spread human-to-human and that in Washington State roughly 11% of deer mice tested carry the disease. She said that to her knowledge it has never been found in roof rats, Norway rats or field mice. Nonetheless, she advises extreme caution in any rodent-infested environment, and says that any inspector experiencing sudden onset of flue-like symptoms - chills and fever - accompanied by vomiting, diarrhea and shortness of break, should seek immediate medical attention.

Additional information can be obtained by contacting the Skagit County Public Health Department at 360-336-9380, or at the Washington State Department of Health website at: http://www.doh.wa.gov.

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