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European edition, Wednesday, July 25, 2007

HEIDELBERG, Germany — In May, a U.S. teacher in Stuttgart contracted the hantavirus, possibly after sweeping out a shed.

He underwent treatment at a German hospital, and the high school was closed for a thorough cleaning.

The teacher remains the only American recorded stricken with the rodent-borne disease, according to Jeri Chappelle, spokeswoman for the European Regional Medical Command.

But German health officials are reporting a huge increase in their number of cases — especially around Heidelberg and Stuttgart.

Cases of hantavirus, caused in humans by inhaling tiny particles of aerosolized waste from infected rodents, increased by 400 percent between January and April of this year more than the same periods in the past five years, according to the Robert Koch Institute, the German equivalent of the national U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most of the cases — 127 — were reported in Baden-Württemberg. Bavaria was the next most affected, with 19 cases.

In the Kaiserslautern area, however, with the largest concentration of U.S. troops and family members, local public health officials have not reported a single case, said Lt. Col. William Corr, preventive medicine chief at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.

The German virus — contracted from waste of infected bank voles — is far weaker and less dangerous than that of the virus in the U.S. — contracted from infected deer mice droppings.

In Europe, the hantavirus fatality rate is “less than one percent,” according to German health officials.

“It’s a weaker virus,” Corr said. “It’s important to be aware of it. But keep things in perspective. Enjoy the outdoors. A little thing like a bank vole shouldn’t preclude people from enjoying Europe.”

Of 164 total German cases this year, 77 percent were in men between the ages of 30 to 59 years old, according to the institute, and none involved children under 10.

In the U.S., since the virus was identified in 1993, some 465 cases have been reported in 32 states, according to the CDC. More than a third were fatal.

Both kinds of the virus are transmitted to humans by inhalation of aerosolized dust of feces, urine or saliva of infected rodents.

People can be exposed when hiking or camping — or through sweeping or cleaning areas where infected rodents have been.

Symptoms at first are like the flu: abrupt onset of fever, headache, vomiting, diarrhea or constipation, a red throat, and pain in the stomach and back.

This year’s increase may be due to warm winter weather that allowed more rodents to survive and breed.

But why some voles become infected with the virus isn’t clear.

What to do

Avoid places where the bank vole lives: forested areas, broadleaf woodlands, scrublands, hedgerows and sometimes gardens, building nests in shallow tunnels or on the ground. Suspect areas should be cleaned carefully:n Wear rubber, latex or vinyl gloves.n Do not stir up dust by vacuuming or sweeping. Instead, thoroughly wet contaminated areas with a bleach solution or household disinfectant. Make a bleach solution by mixing 1½ cups of household bleach in one gallon of water. (Note: Bleach is an irritant and should not be used on humans or live animals.)n Once everything is wet, remove contaminated materials with a paper towel, then mop or sponge the area with bleach solution or household disinfectant.n Remove gloves, and thoroughly wash hands with soap and water (or use a waterless alcohol-based hand rub when soap is not available and hands are not visibly soiled).nIf you find a dead rodent, do not move it. Contact authorities.

If camping or hiking, reduce risk of exposure by:n Airing out cabins before occupying.n Inspect the cabins for signs of rodents. Do not use them if you suspect they have been infested by rodents.n Don’t sleep outdoors near rodent burrows, woodpiles or garbage areas.n Don’t disturb rodents or their burrows and nests.n Avoid sleeping on the bare ground; sleep on a mat or cot.n Store food in a rodent-proof container.n Discard waste items in an appropriately covered recycle/refuse container to avoid attracting rodents.

— Nancy Montgomery

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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