PROVO — Utah has been added to the list of states with confirmed Seoul virus infection. The rat-borne hantavirus illness was detected in a Utah County resident who had direct contact with a now defunct rat-breeding facility, according to state and Utah County health officials.
Rats raised to be pets are responsible for what is now a 15-state outbreak of Seoul virus, which is a rare form of hantavirus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC tied cases in Illinois and Wisconsin to a rat-breeding facility, or rattery, in Illinois. Whether there's a link between that facility and the Utah rattery is part of the local investigation, said Aislynn Tolman-Hill, Utah County Health Department spokesperson. That rattery had closed well before the virus was detected in the individual.
The virus spreads between rats and between rats and people. But it does not appear to spread from person to person, Tolman-Hill said.
State health educator Rebecca Ward said there's no cause for worry unless one has direct exposure to rodents or to symptoms that are suggestive of exposure to the virus. It takes from a week to two months to develop symptoms.
For most people, those symptoms are mild — if there are any symptoms at all. People typically recover on their own without medical intervention. But some can experience fever, severe headache, back or abdominal pains, chills, nausea, blurred vision, rash, and swollen or red eyes. In severe cases, an individual may suffer acute kidney disease.
The Seoul virus form of hantavirus is spread by contact with fluids from an infected rat, including feces, urine and saliva. It can be inhaled. But it's hard to spot an infected rat, according to health officials, because they appear healthy. And handling an infected rat can expose a healthy rat to the virus, unless hygiene precautions are taken.
Health officials are investigating possible links between ratteries in different states. A CDC advisory noted that ratteries sometimes ship rodents, so infected rodents may have been distributed to ratteries in other states.
The more common form of hantavirus connected to deer mice has been in Utah since the early 1990s and has claimed a number of Utahns. In most cases, individuals come in contact with the droppings and feces while cleaning out garages and outdoor areas.
To avoid any type of rodent-borne hantavirus illness, health experts say to:
— Wash hands after handling pets or areas where pets have been.
— Wear gloves and masks, whether you're cleaning out an outdoor area with evidence of rodents or tidying up a pet cage.
— Droppings should never be vacuumed or swept, Tolman-Hill said. Instead, rodent bedding and other areas that contain droppings should be sprayed down, then bagged and disposed of to avoid creating dust.
— Keep pet rodent cages and the animals themselves away from kitchens and any area where food is served. Cleaning pet cages or toys should also be done away from food or bathing places, the CDC says.
— Don't "kiss or snuggle" small pets, touch your face after handling them or eat and drink around them.
— Keep small pets out of children's bedrooms, particularly those of small children.