Rodent populations are booming in New Mexico's rural communities, greatly increasing the threat of a potentially deadly outbreak of hantavirus.

Wet El Nino weather produces an abundance of insects and vegetation for the virus' prime host - deer mice - to feed on, Robert Parmenter, a biologist at the University of New Mexico, said Wednesday."It looks like a potential repeat of '92-93," when the respiratory illness first was identified after killing 11 people in the Four Corners region, he said.

The outbreak in the spring of 1993, which infected 48 people, also followed an episode of heavy moisture from an El Nino earlier in the decade.

Since then, hantavirus has sickened 180 people in 27 states with a mortality rate of 44 percent, authorities said last month.

But experts caution that an increase in mice populations doesn't directly translate to the human infection, which is characterized by a high fever and debilitating muscle aches that can progress into severe lung disease.

"I think people should know that there are more rodents, but nobody should get too excited," said Dr. Brian Hjelle, a UNM vi-rol-o-gist.

The Department of Health hopes to counter the threat with a campaign to avoid hantavirus.

"I think with all education process we have in place already we're not going to have an outbreak, even though we're going to have more mice," said Joe Roybal, a department health educator.

Most New Mexico schools have had presentations on avoiding the virus, and workers and others who might be at risk also have been educated, Roybal said. Thousands of prevention pamphlets have been distributed.