SALT LAKE CITY — Two very different families, one in Salt Lake County and the other in Millard County, are looking for answers after their relatives died suddenly in the last month.
Both families have been told that hantavirus, a rare but potentially deadly virus contracted from mouse droppings, could be to blame. Officials with the Utah Department of Health said Tuesday that lab results have been sent. But the family of Norma Martina Aguirre de Sánchez, 47, remains unsure.
The Delta family has a death certificate that lists the word "pending" as the cause of Sanchez's May 2 death at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center in Provo.
Sanchez's brother-in-law spoke in Spanish to the Deseret News Tuesday, saying the family wishes it knew why she died. They were originally told she may have contracted a "virus from a mouse" but no one confirmed the diagnosis nor told them how others could avoid getting sick.
Relatives of 35-year-old Tyler Tidwell, of Herriman, are also awaiting confirmation after his "brief but intense struggle against an as yet unknown illness," according to an obituary. He died May 29 at LDS Hospital.
It remains unknown where or how the two contracted the illness, but state epidemiologist JoDee Baker confirmed that both were exposed to mouse droppings in the recent past.
"It's been many years since we've even seen more than one case in a season," she said. "To have two fatalities so early in the season is concerning. Hantavirus is still out there. It's rare, but it is potentially deadly."
While any case of hantavirus is extremely rare in Utah — there have been just 31 in the past two decades — most victims survive the illness, due to early diagnosis and ongoing supportive care, including physician-monitoring.
Deer mice, a distant relative of the common house mouse or laboratory mouse in North America, are notorious for carrying hantavirus, transmitting it through their urine and feces. They are most active during the warmer months of summer and early fall, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Contaminated dust from a disturbed pile of excrement can infect a person's respiratory system, specifically the lungs, leading to a respiratory failure (Hantavirus Pulminary Syndrome) that can cause death. Informing a doctor can help to prevent a fatal conclusion, but there is no known vaccine or antibiotics to combat the virus completely, Baker said.
Infection can be prevented by avoiding contact with rodents and their droppings. To safely clean up mice excretions, individuals are encouraged to wear a mask, safety glasses and rubber or plastic gloves. Baker said the area should be sprayed with a disinfectant or a mixture of one-and-a-half cups of bleach to each gallon of water, allowing it to soak for about five minutes to kill the virus.
"Inside a person, the virus is potentially deadly, but in the environment, it is usually not very hardy and easy to kill," she said.
Symptoms don't typically appear until weeks after exposure may have occurred, and begin with a fever, muscle aches and chills. Other common symptoms include coughing, shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea and headaches. If a person is experiencing symptoms and there has been known contact with droppings, Baker said to contact a medical provider immediately.
Hantavirus is not contagious and cannot be transferred from person to person, Baker said.
An outbreak of hantavirus was detected near the Four Corners area in southeastern Utah in 1993. The majority of the nation's cases since then have been in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, California, Texas and Washington. Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Montana have reported around 30 cases each as of March, according to the CDC.
"The deer mouse is not just in the Four Corners area anymore," Baker said. "Historically, it has been all throughout the state, but with all the new development and housing going in places where their environment is, they're getting stirred up and moving into places they've never been before.
"It's scary to know that just because you live in an urban area, it doesn't necessarily protect you."