Spring cleaning can stir up animal-carried diseases

SEATTLE -- Tidying up is typically a pretty safe activity, but the Washington State Department of Health is warning residents that spring cleaning can put you at risk for rare but serious diseases spread by wild animals.

If rodents and other critters have found their way into your home or garage, experts warn you should be careful cleaning up after them. Droppings, nests and dead rodents or bats are all signs of animals that can carry dangerous diseases like hantavirus and rabies.

"Although these illnesses are rare, they can be deadly," said State Health Officer Dr. Maxine Hayes. "By taking a few simple steps, people can protect themselves from being exposed."

Hantavirus is spread by deer mice that excrete the virus in their urine, saliva, and droppings. You can be exposed to hantavirus by breathing contaminated dust after disturbing or cleaning rodent droppings or nests.

Typically one to three people in Washington contract hantavirus pulmonary syndrome each year and about a third of those die. Last year, two people developed the disease and both of them died.

The illness is more common in eastern Washington, although cases have been exposed throughout most of the state.

Early symptoms of hantavirus include fever, muscle aches, and fatigue. The illness progresses within a few days to shortness of breath, then to very serious respiratory distress requiring hospitalization. There's no vaccine or cure for hantavirus.

Here are some tips from the Department of Health to prevent hantavirus:

  • Keep rodents out of your home, garage, and other buildings

  • Avoid activities such as sweeping and vacuuming that can stir-up dust in areas where rodents have been

  • Spray 10 percent bleach on rodent-contaminated areas and allow it to soak in for at least 10 minutes before carefully wiping up and disposing of the mess

  • See the Department of Health website for more guidelines for cleaning areas where rodents have been.

Residents who interact with bats are at risk of being infected with rabies. The virus is thought to be in about one percent of all bats. However, bats that interact with humans tend to be sick or injured, an about 5 to 10 percent of these are rabid. Bats with rabies have been found in every part of Washington. In 2012, nine rabid bats were identified in Chelan, Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Island, King, Skagit, Snohomish, Wahkiakum, and Whatcom counties.

Here are some tips from the Department of Health to prevent rabies:

  • Don't touch bats

  • If you find a bat in your living space or have any direct contact with a bat in any location, call your local health agency

  • "Bat proof" your home to prevent them from entering in the first place

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