Deer Mice Hantavirus
The Regents of the University of California
Deer mice are the most abundant and widely distributed mammals in North America, and contact with their droppings can cause a serious illness called Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome.

Murder By Poverty: Honor Student Dies From Dilapidated Housing

Alysa Landry

A 17-year-old Navajo girl has died of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome, a serious respiratory disease likely caused by contact with infected rodent droppings.

The teen, of Cameron, Arizona, died January 8, said Del Yazzie, an epidemiologist for the Navajo Epidemiology Center. She was seen at Tuba City Regional Health Care in Tuba City, Arizona, where doctors referred her to the University of New Mexico Hospital. She died en route to Albuquerque, Yazzie said. Officials in Coconino County, Arizona, and the Arizona Department of Health Services independently confirmed the death.

An honor student, the girl lived in a dilapidated house with six other family members, and Yazzie believes various structural and social factors likely put the girl at higher risk of contracting the disease.

“A lot of it has it has to do with poverty and housing conditions,” he said. The Cameron area is part of the former Bennett Freeze, a 1.6-million-acre swath of Navajo land to the west of the Hopi Reservation. All development came to a halt in 1966 when then-Commissioner of Indian Affairs Robert Bennett “froze” the area in response to longstanding disputes between the Navajo and Hopi.

The freeze was lifted in 2006 when the two tribes came to a formal agreement, and President Barack Obama in 2009 signed a bill repealing the freeze. But new construction and even basic repairs to existing structures have remained stalled as the Navajo Nation seeks necessary funding.

An estimated 6,700 residents of the former Bennett Freeze are still living in conditions that haven’t changed in the last half-century. Yazzie pointed to these conditions as possible contributing factors to the death, but added that keeping homes and outbuildings clean can help minimize the risk. No vaccine for Hantavirus exists.

“We are releasing information about preventing Hantavirus because that’s the best thing to do,” he said. “If you’re cleaning out a garage, storage area or even a home where there could be rodent droppings, be careful.”

According to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome is a rare but potentially fatal disease most often spread by infected deer mice. Cases occur sporadically and usually in rural areas where rodents live in barns, outbuildings and sheds.

The virus is transmitted to people when they come in contact with infected rodent droppings, said Amy Rowland, a spokeswoman for the CDC. It is not spread from one human to another.

“It’s contracted when you breathe in the droppings, the urine,” she said. “Rodent feces are small, and you may not be able to see them. To prevent infection, you need to be aware of your surroundings, those places where rodent droppings might be.”

After first exposure to the virus, it can take between seven days and three weeks for symptoms to appear. The illness begins with a fever, muscle aches and headache.

Historically, most cases of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome have occurred in the desert Southwest. In 1993, the first-ever known cases of Hantavirus were reported in the Four Corners region, where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah meet. The first reported death was a Navajo woman, who succumbed to a then-unknown illness in April 1993. A Navajo man went to the hospital a month later with similar symptoms; he also died in what was the beginning of the first outbreak of Hantavirus.

Number of reported cases of hantavirus in the United States in 1993. (

Since 1993, 100 people have contracted Hantavirus in New Mexico, with 76 reported cases in Arizona, 93 in Colorado and 66 in California, according to data from the CDC. A total of 690 cases have been reported nationwide, with 36 percent resulting in death.

The Navajo Nation sees cases on a yearly basis, Yazzie said, though it occurs most often during the summertime.

“It is still a rare disease, but we do get yearly cases on Navajo,” he said. “Most of them aren’t fatal.”

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jello1800's picture
Submitted by jello1800 on
In Kayenta we have had a Hanta Case, and a MRSA case. Both were linked to not having clean running water. The MRSA case was linked to Bennett Freeze Black Mesa Mine area as the eruption site. The Multi-Agency task force in Kayenta, was ill equipped to support the families during the crisis. And in fact, injured the MRSA child, who was 6 years old at the time by forcibly conducting an overmedication of antibiotics, under supervision. Both the MRSA and the Hanta were identified at the school without quarantine for a period of time. The mRSA case was unusual in that it was dozens of infectious sites all over the child's body, was HPL Bennett Freeze. The Kayenta court ordered the family's animals to be destroyed. The child was found to be in class, with diarrhea from his neck, down his back, dripping through his pants and into his shoes, and they kept the child in class, with bandages over the sores, that kept slipping off due to the aggression of the expressive wounds. The child suffered in this infectious condition for more than a week before releasing the child as too infectious for class. With new sores appearing on the scalp, arms, face and elsewhere. This indian child had no access to social services, or crisis counseling for the experience, and became targeted for behavioral infractions in the school to prison pipeline. Kayenta is building a juvenile detention center, across the road from the school. Yet has no crisis services for Bennett Freeze victim children.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
People worry about Ebola that can kill the infected in two weeks, but Hanta virus can liquefy your lungs in as little as three days. The sad thing is that by the time the symptoms become recognizable it's often too late. I urge everyone to please remember to use a suitable dust filter mask when sweeping out storage rooms, garages or anywhere else deer mice might live and breed. I personally survived a serious bout of MRSA. I got it through surgery at a nearby hospital after a serious bicycle accident. It was introduced by the pins in my wrist (used to repair a bad break) and left me suffering far worse the the original accident. Still, antibiotics did the trick (I had daily IV infusions for 8 weeks) which isn't the case with Hanta virus. Please everyone be careful breathing in dust when cleaning - it could save your life!

onedman's picture
Submitted by onedman on
I try to talk to white people about poverty, water conditions and lack of healthcare in the 4 corners area and they look at me with stone faces. I post links to stories on my web site and no one comments. But it's all over the news about Flint's problems, either the t.v. or the web. This makes me sick and angry. I remember a story from many years ago about a Navajo woman being taught by her Grandmother to always wear a wet cloth over her face when cleaning house because they had a dirt floor. The image has always stayed with me. I wonder if a house cat would help? Would they too carry the disease? Dogs aren't much for hunting mice unless very hungry, they'll go after bigger game instead.