Hantavirus scare in York, PA!

Dr. Mathur on vacation in Yosemite Valley.

Not since the Great Ice Fall of 2008 have we had the opportunity to see York College microbiology in the spotlight. The September 12th York Daily Record features the alarming headline “Hantavirus concern spreads, even locally” and features commentary by York College Biology Faculty members Carolyn Mathur and Meda Higa.

Hantavirus, as explained succinctly by Dr. Higa in the YDR article, is an airborne-transmitted virus that is responsible for causing initial flu-like signs and symptoms that can become quite severe in a significant number of the cases. From the National Institutes of Health page on hantavirus, the respiratory symptoms are quite serious and can quickly progress to a very poor prognosis in the patient. Consequently, hantavirus infections are treated aggressively on confirmation. Since 1993, there have been 30 cases annually on average, with about a 30 to 50% mortality rate. Most exposure to the virus has occurred in the Southwest United States in Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona, however exposure reports have occurred in 34 states total including 4 in Pennsylvania since the disease was first described.

The summer of 2012 has seen a spike in hantavirus cases from California, with 8 reports of infection and 3 deaths from late June on. The majority of the cases can be traced to a specific campground in Yosemite National Park, and the National Park Service has taken the unusual step of warning all visitors to the park this past summer to be aware of the possibility that they were exposed to the virus. Transmission to humans is strongly associated with exposure to mouse droppings; the virus infects small rodents, is amplified in them, and passes into their feces. Little danger exists to humans just being in proximity to the droppings, however if they are swept or disturbed, the virus can be carried on air currents and inhaled.

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Electron micrograph of Sin Nombre hantavirus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Bringing the story home to us here at YCP, Dr. Mathur and her family traveled to Yosemite this past summer, and visited during the time frame identified by the Centers for Disease Control for potentially becoming infected with hantavirus. Dr. Mathur’s son Ryan (a Professor of Geology at Juniata College in central Pennsylvania) came down with several of the initial flu-like symptoms indicative of hantavirus, however laboratory testing here in Pennsylvania have ruled out hantavirus. He has fully recovered. Dr. Higa conjectured that the combination of wet, early spring temperatures, combined with a dry, hot summer has created conditions allowing the spike in cases this year by allowing an initial mouse population explosion with subsequent easy dispersal conditions for the virus.

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About ycpmicro

My name is David Singleton, and I am an Associate Professor of Microbiology at York College of Pennsylvania. My main course is BIO230, a course taken by allied-health students at YCP. Views on this site are my own.

Posted on September 13, 2012, in Danger danger danger!, Microbes in the News and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hello!
    I can’t believe that York College got a say in this article! I had Dr. Higa last year for Biology, and it’s awesome reading about a professor who you had is in an article. On a darker note however, I feel bad for anyone who was exposed to this hantavirus especially if you were on vacation! You think that you would contract this type of virus in a more social environment, not at Yosemite! Its like you are not safe anywhere anymore!

    • Dr. Higa told me that she felt that some of the information was misstated in the YDR article. I made sure to verify my information here before posting!

      Oh, and I wish that the “Ice Fall” link still had the associated video. I was asked to be a “hand model” for WGAL!!!!

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