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Hantavirus in Yosemite: World Health Organization issues alert

September 6, 2012 |  5:00 am

The World Health Organization is the latest agency to weigh in on the recent hantavirus outbreak in Yosemite National Park, issuing an advisory about the rare disease that has killed two and sickened four.

Issued Tuesday though the agency's "global alert and response network," the notification summarizes the Yosemite outbreak and advises travelers to "avoid exposure to rodents and their excreta."

The agency also sent several tweets about hantavirus Wednesday.

"If you stayed in the Signature Tent Cabins in Yosemite National Park, USA, since June 2012 & have #Hantavirus symptoms, see a doctor," read one message.

"Doctors, if you have patients with #Hantavirus symptoms, ask for their travel history," read another.

The tweets came the same day Dr. David Wong, an epidemiologist with the National Park Service's Office of Public Health, confirmed to The Times that U.S. health authorities had notified 39 other countries whose citizens may be at risk for hantavirus after recently traveling to to the park.

Wong said health officials believe 2,000 to 2,500 people from outside the United States have possibly been exposed to the disease. Last week, the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said up to 10,000 people were at risk after staying in the "signature tent cabins" in Curry Village between June 10 and Aug. 24.

Six hantavirus cases have been linked to the park, two of which were fatal. Yosemite officials have traced five of the cases to the tent cabins, saying a design flaw allowed mice to get inside the walls of the insulated cabins.

Park officials have sent letters or emails to about 3,100 people who reserved any of the 91 signature tent cabins during that period, urging them or anyone in their party to seek immediate medical attention if they start to show the initial flu-like symptoms of the disease.

Spread through urine, droppings or saliva of infected rodents, hantavirus takes one to six weeks before causing symptoms in humans, officials said. The disease is generally transmitted when people come in contact with an enclosed area that has been infested by mice.

The disease is rare — 587 cases were diagnosed nationwide from 1993 and 2011, of which about one-third were fatal, according to the CDC.

But the cases at Yosemite are perhaps even more rare. Park officials and public health authorities said they had not heard of more than one case of the disease in the` same location within a year.

News of the outbreak rattled recent visitors. Rangers have fielded thousands of calls from concerned travelers, and a spokeswoman with the concessionaire that handles park lodging said there was a 20% cancellation rate on the usually sold-out Labor Day weekend.

On Monday, a British health organization announced it was contacting citizens believed to be at risk. The Health Protection Agency said in a statement that officials were "providing health advice and information" to about 100 people believed to have traveled to the national park this summer.


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— Kate Mather

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Photo: Signature tent cabins in Curry Village are now closed indefinitely as an investigation into the hantavirus outbreak continues. Credit: Tomas Ovalle / For The Times