Hantavirus is a potentially deadly disease caused by a virus carried by rodents. It can lead to Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) which causes the lungs to fill with fluid and can cause respiratory failure. (Courtesy South Dakota Department of Health)

Lakota Community Battles Deadly Rodent-Spread Hantavirus

Patti Jo King
7/16/12

The Oglala Sioux Tribe (OST) has initiated an intensive awareness and prevention program in order to address a recent Hantavirus outbreak in the Pine Ridge Village District. Although cases of Hantavirus have been reported within South Dakota in the past, this is the first reported case of Hantavirus contamination in tribal lands within the state.

The Lakota community is mourning the death of Maria Lee White Butterfly, age 7, who passed away on May 30 after being infected with the deadly virus. A second child was also infected and hospitalized in June, but authorities say that child is recovering and she is now out of critical danger. As soon as Public Health authorities notified the tribe of the cause of the child’s death, OST President John Yellow Bird Steele issued a statement of condolence for the White Butterfly family, and called for immediate support from surrounding agencies in an effort to contain the virus.

“I extend our most sincere and heartfelt condolences to the family and extended families of our little tribal member who lost her life in this great tragedy,” his statement began. “It is with a heavy heart that I call upon all our tribal programs, tribal organizations, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Service and all other private entities on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to immediately lend their support in whatever way possible to ensure that this tragedy does not strike again.”

First Case For Shannon County

Between 1991 and 2011 there have been 14 confirmed cases of Hantavirus infection in South Dakota, but this is the first time the illness has been detected in Shannon County.

Since the case was discovered, the tribe has given the matter top priority in its efforts to safeguard the residents of the Pine Ridge reservation, and to raise awareness in the surrounding regions.

According to OST Public Relations Coordinator Donna Salomon, members of the Tribal President’s Office, the OST Health and Human Services Committee, and the Pine Ridge Indian Health Administration held an emergency meeting to discuss a viable plan of action as soon as they learned of the crisis.

Tribal Councilwoman, Sonia Weston, chairperson of the OST Health & Human Services Committee, says the tribe has been coordinating with the other agencies since that time to “strategize and mobilize” for prevention. “Initially, there were three sites where possible contamination was suspected,” she said. “In partnership with Indian Health Services we distributed literature at IHS clinics and hospitals and have issued public alerts over the radio.”

Public Awareness

Experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) agree that the best method of protection is public awareness. For that reason, the ongoing work of familiarizing communities with the causes and early symptoms of Hantavirus can save lives. 

Steele says the tribe is doing all they can to create awareness and educate the public about the seriousness of Hantavirus contamination.

“We are working together with Indian Health Service and other agencies to coordinate efforts to educate the public about the problem and to inform them about how to prevent it. This disease has no boundaries,” he said in a phone interview. “It crosses all lines of race, age and gender and I urge everyone to protect their families by taking the necessary precautions.”

A Deadly History

Hantavirus was first identified in the spring of 1993 in the Four Corners region of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah when doctors puzzled over two cases of critical, unexplained illness. At first, physicians believed the illness was a form of bubonic plague that spread from one member of a family to the next. When they realized that the virus could not be spread from human to human, the plague theory was ruled out, leaving health care authorities with the task of trying to identify the source and nature of the contagion. They initially referred to the illness as Unexplained Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome.

By summer 1993, researchers had identified the host of the virus as “Peromyscus maniculatus” or the Deer Mouse; a rodent species found throughout the western United States and in Canada.

Investigators discovered the virus in the rodent’s urine, saliva, and feces. Humans contract the virus through contact with contaminated dust from mice nests or droppings. Contact with the dust can be made in several ways; while cleaning a house where mice have been present, by breathing dust in contaminated sheds or enclosed areas that may have sat empty for a long period of time. In a small number of cases, the illness was contracted outdoors, when victims pitched tents on forest floors once used as nesting sites by the mice.

Most of those infected, however, contract the illness through some form of contact with rodents or rodent droppings in their own homes. Still some, who have fallen ill, said they had not seen rodents or their droppings at all. Therefore, experts advise those who live in or plan to visit areas where the carrier rodents are known to live, to be vigilant. Always keep homes, workplaces and campsites clean.

A Danger to Rural Indian Communities

According to the CDC, as of March 2012, some 587 cases of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) have been reported in 34 states. Although more than half have been reported outside of the Four Corners area, New Mexico, with 90 reported cases, Colorado with 78, and Arizona with 64, still leads the nation in the highest numbers of reported cases. These states are followed closely by California, Washington, Montana, Texas, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, Kansas, South Dakota, Wyoming, Oklahoma, and Arkansas. 

Almost all of these states have rural Indian populations within their boundaries; communities which may be at a higher risk for Hanta Virus contamination due to their rural locations.

Symptoms

According to the Center for Disease Control, early symptoms often resemble influenza, making it difficult for an infected person to self-diagnose the illness. Individuals experiencing chills, fever, muscle aches, fatigue, and shortness of breath—common early symptoms of the disease—who have also had possible rural rodent exposure, should immediately seek a doctor’s advice.

The infection causes the lungs to fill with fluid, a condition called HPS, which often leads to respiratory failure. Complications with the kidney, heart and lungs are also common among people suffering from HPS. Doctors often prescribe ribavirin to treat kidney-related issues.

Treatment

Unfortunately, there is no vaccine or standard treatment for HPS, however, infected patients who are diagnosed and receive early medical treatment and hospitalization usually fare best. Intensive care, intubation and oxygen therapy help to ease the severe respiratory distress that accompanies the illness. Without such critical care, nearly one half of all individuals infected die.

Weston says she believes the problem has been contained, a fact she attributes to the community’s positive and timely response to the warnings.

“It is extremely important to immediately prioritize Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome as the number one emergency health concern on the Pine Ridge Reservation and to take all precautionary measures to protect the members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe against this deadly disease.”

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