Hantavirus at Yosemite: Death Toll Rises to Three, Reminds Us of Power of Nature

by  Blane Bachelor | Sep 7, 2012
Yosemite National Park
Yosemite National Park / chaolik/iStock

The recent headlines over the hantavirus outbreak at Yosemite National Park in California keep getting grimmer. On Thursday, news broke of the third fatality from the rare, rodent-borne illness, which has been linked to some tent cabins at the park’s popular Curry Village.

In addition, park officials also confirmed that the eighth confirmed case of hantavirus linked to the park in recent weeks, which was a mild case and did not require hospitalization, likely occurred not in Curry Village but at one of the park's high country camps. As a result, Yosemite officials are notifying about 12,000 additional people who stayed in the park’s High Sierra camps this summer, said Kari Cobb, public affairs officer for Yosemite National Park.

So far, park officials have sent more than 3,000 e-mails and letters to people who reserved cabins in Curry Village over the summer and have posted and shared links to FAQs and safety tips about the virus. In addition, various health agencies working on the outbreak, including the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have taken to Twitter and other social media to help get the word out about the outbreak. Meanwhile, all 91 of the "signature" cabin tents at Curry Village, where the majority of infections are believed to have occurred due to a design flaw in the tents that allowed mice inside, are closed indefinitely, Cobb said.

Still, even with all the efforts dedicated to controlling the outbreak, the situation also underscores an important reminder for any travelers who enjoy the wilderness: that as safe and regulated as national parks are, nature always has the upper hand.

That was a scary realization for me when I first heard reports of the hantavirus cases linked to the signature tent cabins, which are one of four cabin types at Curry Village, a popular camping area in Yosemite. My husband and I stayed in one during a trip to the park last fall, and I breathed a sigh of relief when it was clear that our visit happened more than six months before the timetable of the outbreak.

But it's easy to hit the panic button when such dramatic news hits. Along those lines, Cobb points out a major misconception that's been floating around during the outbreak:  Hantavirus can't be transmitted between people, and it can't be contracted simply by walking through open spaces or the park in general.

"You can only get it from the mice, in airborne particles, and in enclosed, tight spaces," Cobb said. "You can't transfer it from person to person. And you can’t get it just walking through Curry village or Yosemite National Park."

The disease is rare: According to the CDC, just 587 cases were diagnosed nationwide from 1993 and 2011, of which about one-third were fatal. Nevertheless, you can further reduce your chances of contracting it by following the safety guidelines suggested by Yosemite officials. Among them: Don't sleep on bare ground; don't pitch your tent near possible rodent habitats like dense brush or woodpiles; and avoid leaving luggage or bags on the ground or cabin floor.

According to the CDC, symptoms for the disease, for which there is no cure, include fever, chills, and nausea. Symptoms may develop between one and five weeks after exposure to fresh urine, droppings, or saliva of infected rodents.

While we're on the subject of staying safe in the wilderness, here's a link to the post I wrote in the spring about animal encounters in the wild. Bottom line: Steer clear of critters, no matter how big or small.

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