A graduate student from Virginia Tech (VT) in Blacksburg died earlier this month after getting infected with a hantavirus during field work in a West Virginia forest. The case, along with a nonfatal hantavirus infection in California, raises questions about the precautions taken by researchers who work with wild rodents.
Jeff Kaminski, a 32-year-old mammalogist, was studying the effects of forest management practices on small mammal populations in mountainous Randolph County in West Virginia, a job that required him to catch mice and other rodents, says VT population geneticist Eric Hallerman, who knew the victim well. He got sick on 5 July, was hospitalized 2 days later in Williamsburg, Virginia, and died on 8 July from what was has since been established to be hantavirus pulmonary syndrome.
There are at least four disease-causing hantavirus species in the United States and several rodent species that can harbor them. People usually get infected when they come in contact with saliva, urine, or feces from an infected animal. But the disease is rare in the eastern United States, says epidemiologist James Mills of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, which plans to send a team to West Virginia in early August to investigate the case. Hallerman says Kaminski will be remembered as a student with a quirky sense of humor who was completely devoted to field work. "That's when he was in his element," he says.
Meanwhile, another recent hantavirus patient--a 23-year-old male from Plumas County, California, who the state's health department says has recovered--is known among hantavirus insiders to be a scientist as well, says Brian Hjelle, a virologist at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He says the patient is an ecologist at the University of California, Davis, who had been trapping rodents near the university's field station in Quincy, California.
To Hjelle, the two cases suggest that ecologists aren't taking sufficient protection measures when handling wild rodents. Guidelines to prevent infection posted on the CDC's Web site recommend that, among other things, anyone who comes in contact with rodents wear a respirator and rubber gloves. VT instructs their students to wear gloves and paper masks, says Hallerman--but in the hot and humid forest, Kaminski may not have heeded that advice, he says. Even if he did, however, "paper masks just don't do the job," says Hjelle.
An account of the case on ProMED-mail, an e-mail list about emerging infectious diseases
Another posting on ProMED-mail, with comment from Hjelle
CDC's guidelines on how to prevent hantavirus infection
All About hantaviruses