Mono County reports one case of plague, one of hantavirus |

Mono County reports one case of plague, one of hantavirus

by Linda Hiller

Confirmed cases of hantavirus and bubonic plague in Mono County have caused health officials to step up efforts to inform residents of the danger both diseases pose.

“Each of these patients survived their serious disease,” said Mono County Health Officer Dr. Jack Bertman on Tuesday. “But it serves to remind those who live or play in the Eastern Sierra that there are very serious disease threats in our environment, and we should take simple precautions to lower the risks of acquiring them.”

Mono County borders southern Douglas County, and includes Coleville, Walker and Bridgeport, Calif.

Bertman said the hantavirus patient most likely acquired the disease near her home in Hammil Valley, off Highway 6 north of Bishop, Calif. She was reported ill on July 20.

“This is a small ranching community and there was quite a bit of evidence of mice droppings,” he said. “The doctor was sharp enough to inquire about the patient’s exposure to rodents and sent off a blood test which came back positive for hantavirus. She didn’t go into hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, which is when it goes into the lungs and becomes very serious. Because of this, the patient did not have to be hospitalized.”

– Endemic plague area. The Mono County bubonic plague patient had been in several outdoor locales in the Eastern Sierra prior to contracting the disease, Bertman said.

“The whole Eastern Sierra from north to south, but mostly in the south, is an endemic plague area,” Bertman said. “Whatever we’ve got here – the right temperature and the right dryness, perhaps – we’ll always have the disease here. It was here before we got here and it will be here after we’re gone.”

The male patient entered the hospital with severe flu-like symptoms on July 30, was diagnosed on Aug. 1 and remained hospitalized until Sunday, having undergone a week of intravenous antibiotic treatment.

“This case of plague is only the sixth in the United States for 1998 and the first in California for the year,” Bertman said. “It’s hard to get, but people still need to be cautious.”

– Last Douglas case in 1994. The last case of plague in Douglas County was in 1994, according to Douglas County Health Officer Dr. David Johnson. He treated the 16-year-old boy who contracted bubonic plague after he cooked and ate a wild squirrel.

– Korean origins. Bertman said hantavirus is named after the River Han in Korea, where American soldiers contracted a mysterious kidney disease from mice living under their housing during the Korean War.

It wasn’t until June 1993 that the disease again surfaced in the southwestern United States, where several deaths – mostly among a Navaho population there – were attributed to hantavirus.

One month later, Bertman diagnosed the first California case of hantavirus from Mammoth Lakes.

This recent case is the 17th in the state’s history, Bertman said.

Hantavirus has continued to have a high mortality rate, ranging from an estimated 43 to 50 percent.

There have been a total of 185 hantavirus cases reported in the U.S., with eight in Nevada, two of them resulting in patient deaths.

– Case in Elko. Last month a confirmed hantavirus case was reported in rural Elko, according to Bob Salcido, senior communicable disease investigator for the State of Nevada. The 36-year-old male recovered.

Dennis Lampson, director of environmental health for the Mono County Health Services, said routine testing of the deer mouse populations in the California county generally yields 15-20 percent of the mice testing positive for the disease. Salcido said testing in Northern Nevada finds similar percentages.

On Monday, a California state vector biologist will arrive to trap and test mice in Mono County where the hantavirus was believed to have been contracted and to test other rodents in the vicinities of the plague patient’s outdoor activities prior to his diagnosis, Bertman said.

No campgrounds have been closed, but all are posted with the customary plague warnings, Bertman said.

“This is just another problem of how we interface with the wilderness,” Bertman said. “We’ll always have to live with these diseases. As terrifying as they sound, these diseases are still really difficult to get.”

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