A third person has died from an infection of the rare hantavirus after a stay in Yosemite National Park this summer, park officials said today.
The death of a West Virginia resident brings the total to eight cases of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome—not all fatal—apparently stemming from stays in Yosemite between June 10 and Aug. 24, park ranger Kari Cobb said.
An Alameda County man and a Pennsylvania resident were identified as the two others fatally infected with the illness, which is contracted through exposure to the urine, droppings or saliva of infected wild mice, often deer mice, park and health officials said.
The five others, including residents from the Bay Area, Sacramento region and Southern California, are either improving or recovering, park officials said.
Seven of the eight cases have been linked to stays at the "Signature Tent Cabins" in Curry Village at the park, which were built in 2009, Cobb said.
Those 91 tent-cabins were closed last week with an indefinite re-opening date, the ranger said. Curry Village operates year-round.
Curry Village is comprised of tent cabins, campgrounds and a stone lodge, and is managed by Delaware North Companies.
The National Park Service worked with the operator to email alerts to guests who had stayed in the lodgings between June 10 and Aug. 24, which
amounted to 3,000 emails, Cobb said.
An additional 6,000 letters were sent to visitors who had stayed and plan to visit the High Sierra Camps, which is in a different part of the park, about possible exposure, Cobb said.
All visitors coming into the park are also being warned about the mouse-borne illness regardless of their lodging plans, Cobb said.
One of the infected visitors had stayed in the Tuolumne Meadows area, but an exact location where he contracted the virus cannot be
pinpointed, Cobb said.
The man suffered mild symptoms and was not tested for the disease until after he recovered and heard about the outbreak on the news.
State health officials have advised the park that the one incident doesn't warrant closing those campsites. The High Sierra camps will close for the season on Sept. 17, as scheduled.
National Park Service staff are working with the California Department of Public Health to investigate why the disease is spreading through the park.
"We are trying to figure out how the mice are getting into the cabins," Cobb said.
The World Health Organization is spreading word about possible infection worldwide, as many visitors come to the destination from abroad, Cobb said.
"We want people to be aware of it and learn everything they can," Cobb said of the disease.
A call center was established at the park last week and more than 2,000 calls have come in, with up to eight park rangers staffing the phones and addressing visitors' concerns about hantavirus, Cobb said.
Cobb said many callers are asking about the safety of visiting the park.
The ranger said some visitors have canceled trips to the park, while others who were scheduled to stay at the Curry Village tent cabins have been rebooked at other lodging in other parts of Curry Village.
Cobb emphasized that hantavirus is a relatively new disease, discovered in 1993.
"We don't know a lot about it," she said. This summer's outbreak is "helping us learn more about the virus...everything from how to avoid it, treat it and recognize it."
She advised visitors educate themselves and learn that hantavirus cannot be spread from human-to-human contact. While at the park if visitors notice any evidence of mice they are asked to take appropriate precautions
and tell staff.
Park staff have been properly trained to deal with possible hantavirus exposure. Cobb said as a ranger herself she wasn't allowed to begin work in Tuolumne Meadows in 2004 until she underwent training on the disease.
Hantavirus symptoms show up one to six weeks after exposure and include fever, headache, muscle ache, and, in extreme cases, difficulty breathing.
Since 1993, more than 60 cases have been reported in California and 602 nationwide, health officials said.
"If showing symptoms, go to your doctor immediately," Cobb urged.
The special line to answer questions is staffed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily for questions about hantavirus in Yosemite at (209) 372-0822.
—Bay City News Service