Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Dan Crane: A Hantavirus Halloween

Halloween is that time of the year when ghosts, ghouls and goblins roam freely, with scary things that go bump in the night being the norm more than any other time of the year (with the possible exception of Election Day). The Adirondacks are not immune to these horrors either, with greedy land developers, unhappy hunting clubs and a multitude of other concerns terrorizing even the most steely backcountry adventurer.

Unfortunately, it appears another horrifying threat has reared its ugly head in the Adirondack backcountry. No, it is not Bigfoot, the Mothman or even Champie; it is the deadly hantavirus. News of this new threat arrived just in time for Halloween, as if Hurricane Sandy was not enough. But, is this a real threat, or is this just another case of media hype, an outgrowth of society’s rampant hypersensitivity?

There is no dispute that hantavirus is deadly, with about a 60% survival rate from the cardio-pulmonary syndrome (HCPS) it causes in people. This virus’ primary vector in New York is the white-footed mouse, with it transmitted to humans via urine or feces, typically aerosolized and inhaled. Hantavirus cardio-pulmonary syndrome results influenza-like symptoms, including difficulty breathing, coughing, or shortness of breath. Cardiovascular shock may follow, eventually resulting in death.

The Center of Disease Control (CDC) and the New York State Department of Health confirmed that a Long Island man was infected with hantavirus in mid-October. Symptoms appeared in September, after which he was hospitalized, and eventually fully recovered. The fact the symptoms appeared a month after returning from a backpacking trip into the Eastern High Peaks region connects the incident to the Adirondacks.

The symptoms arriving so soon after visiting the Adirondacks has led to many reports insinuating that the trip and his affliction with hantavirus are inexpiably linked. Do the facts supports this? Or, in the tortured spirit of the holiday are these media reports just trying to scare people?

While staying at the Uphill lean-to in the High Peaks Wilderness, the victim reported a mouse bit him on the finger. According to his trip report, he woke in the middle of the night due to a sharp pain on his finger and found it bleeding. He assumed a mouse bit him, but could there be another explanation? An insect bite? Or, could he have caught it on the floor of the lean-to?

None of the reports suggests there is any definitive proof that a mouse bit him. He did not even see a rodent near his finger when he awoke. From all accounts, it does not appear as if any expert examined the marks to determine if it was a mouse bite. He assumed it was a mouse, and many of us know what Felix Unger said about assuming. Reports of the incident should emphasize the assumption of a mouse bite, not indicating it as fact.

There have been two prior cases of hantavirus reported in New York State prior to this incident. Both previous cases occurred in Suffolk County, one in 1995 and another in 2011. Incidentally, the man in the current case is also from Suffolk County. Is this a coincidence, or is it possible that he contracted the disease at home prior to or after returning from his backpacking trip in the Adirondacks?

New York State Departments of Health (DOH) and Environmental Conservation (DEC) provided the most accurate reports of the incident, emphasizing the virus was most likely transmitted by sweeping the lean-to, not the alleged mouse bite. There are no plans to capture and test mice at the lean-to, but the DOH are planning to send personnel to the man’s home to identify any possible exposure there. Do health professionals also believe the threat is likely at the victim’s home and not at the lean-to, or are they just concerned about getting their penny loafers dirty?

The potential appearance of hantavirus in the Adirondacks is a terrifying prospect for any backcountry enthusiast who enjoys staying in lean-tos. Hopefully, a full investigation of this incident will vindicate these iconic Adirondack shelters, since there are already enough threats to scare people who enjoy the backcountry.

First there was the Lyme disease threat. Then the exotic West Nile virus. What is the next threat to emerge? Hordes of flying blood-suckers? Reintroduction of flesh-eating carnivores? Murderous genetically-modified foods? The walking dead? There is no telling what may threaten the Adirondack backcountry next.

Happy Halloween!

Photo: Uphill Lean-to in the High Peaks Wilderness by Dan Crane.

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Dan Crane writes regularly about bushwhacking and backcountry camping, including providing insights on equipment and his observations as a veteran backcountry explorer. He has been visiting the Adirondacks since childhood and actively exploring its backcountry for almost two decades. He is also life-long naturalist with a Master of Science in Ecology from SUNY ESF and 10+ seasons working as a field biologist, five inside the Blue Line.

Dan has hiked the Northville-Placid Trail twice and climbed all 46 High Peaks but currently spends his backpacking time exploring the northwestern portion of the Adirondacks. He is also the creator of the blog Bushwhacking Fool where he details his bushwhacking adventures.

9 Responses

  1. Bill Joplin says:

    Dan, you write that “New York State Departments of Health (DOH) and Environmental Conservation (DEC) provided the most accurate reports of the incident, emphasizing the virus was most likely transmitted by sweeping the lean-to, not the alleged mouse bite.” This is a stronger statement than what the DEC says on their web site — at least currently: “It is possible that the man contracted Hanta Virus from mice in Uphill lean-to in the Eastern High Peaks.” I hope I’m not in denial about the presence of hantavirus in the High Peaks lean-tos, but I think it’s more likely that the hiker contracted the virus closer to his home on Long Island. I do want to add that you are the only writer I know to question that lack of proof that a mouse bit the hiker, and I’m glad you have.

    • Dan Crane says:


      The DOH press release stated “In particular, most hantavirus cases have been related to inhaling dust while cleaning up rodent droppings in cabins or garages that have been closed for a period of time.”

      I should have added the following article to the list with the DOH and DEC articles:

      In that article, an infectious disease specialist indicates that most likely the virus was inhaled. Failing to include a link to the article was clearly an oversight on my part. Thanks for this pointing out.

  2. Bill Ott says:

    You have important stuff here; I have read it twice and scanned it again. Looked it up in Wikipedia too. Thought jokingly to myself, “Now I gotta pack a face mask”. Then I realized that I will pack a mask. I have this new info and must act on it. And as for the finger bite, I think a jock strap is in order also.

    Bill Ott
    Lakewood, Ohio

    • Dan Crane says:

      Don’t panic just yet, Bill. It just might turn out the infection occurred down on Long Island, and not the Adirondacks. That is, if Hurricane Sandy left any evidence to find.

  3. Alex Belensz says:

    Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome is almost alwaus acquired via inhalation. It is very rarely transmitted by a bite. It is not unheard of in the northeast… it’s just a media buzzword right now. I wouldn’t be too concerned.

    Also – I doubt that ADK lean-to’s are high-risk areas for hantavirus. The problem tent cabins in Yosemite were poorly ventilated canvas tents that provided ideal nesting areas for mice in between the canvas walls. A lean-to doesn’t provide as good a nesting area and is far more ventilated.

    • Tim says:

      Lean-to’s may be more ventilated but many of them are crawling with mice. I’ve stopped staying in them.

      • Dan Crane says:

        I’ve found that the lean-tos rehabilitated by have a lot less mice in them. Typically, they remove all the junk from underneath, and with fewer places to hide the mice don’t hang around quite as often.

        Then again, it could be that I typically use lean-tos in areas with a lot less human traffic. In most cases the mice are attracted by the activities of man, i.e. eating and storing food in the lean-to.

        It is wise to avoid eating in the lean-to, if at all possible. Unfortunately, this is probably less than likely on a rainy day.

  4. Paul says:

    If it is only because of this unprovoked “mouse bite” (one of the craziest things that I have ever heard of) that they implicate the Adirondacks I don’t buy it. It is possible but he could have gotten it anywhere. Sweeping out an area with lots of dropping (if he actually did this) is a much more likely culprit. I would imagine that you have to have a pretty high titer of virus in the air even if it is present. An open lean to isn’t an ideal place to pick up this virus.

  5. Scott says:

    Another good reason to sleep in a tent!

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