LAKE PLACID - The state Department of Health is investigating a Long Island man's claim that he contracted the hantavirus from a mouse bite in an Adirondack lean-to.
Michael Vaughan is a 72-year-old research associate professor at the Mineral Physics Institute at Stony Brook University. He told the Enterprise Thursday that test results he received Oct. 4 showed he had hantavirus, which causes a severe and often fatal illness that affects the respiratory system and prompts flu-like symptoms.
At a press conference Friday, officials with the Stony Brook University Hospital, which treated Vaughn for five days, said samples were sent to state health officials and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for confirmation. Results are expected next week.
Deer mice like this one have been known to carry hantavirus.
(Enterprise file photo — Mike Lynch)
DOH spokesman Jeffrey Hammond told the Enterprise several times this week, including Friday, that "the department is looking into the issue," but he also said, "there's no confirmed cases of hantavirus to date for 2012."
Craig Manning is a health education and communications specialist with the CDC in Atlanta. His agency tracks hantavirus cases and often follows up with lab tests to verify the initial test results.
"I would regard this as a preliminary positive," Manning told the Enterprise. "Until ... we run it using our (lab), we wouldn't be able to say yay or nay."
Vaughan thinks a mouse bit him on the left thumb on Aug. 26 while he was sleeping at the Uphill lean-to in the High Peaks Wilderness. He said he had his hands outside his sleeping bag and woke up in the middle of the night, feeling pain in his thumb. When he looked at the thumb, it was bleeding. He believes that's how he contracted hantavirus.
"It's circumstantial evidence, but I think it's strong," Vaughan said.
Vaughan said he saw mice in the lean-to numerous times during his stay there. Two other campers decided not to camp at the lean-to because of large number of mice there, he said.
Hantavirus is carried by deer mice and white-footed mice, according to the CDC. People can contract it when they breathe in tiny droplets containing the virus. Those droplets are found in fresh rodent urine, droppings or nesting materials that are stirred up by actions such as sweeping or vacuuming, especially in enclosed areas.
It can also be spread if people touch something that has been contaminated with rodent urine, droppings or saliva, and then touch their nose or mouth. Researchers also suspect people can become sick if they eat food contaminated by urine, droppings or saliva from an infected rodent.
An infectious disease specialist at Stony Brook University Hospital said at Friday's press conference that it is likely Vaughan did not contract the virus from the mouse's bite but rather from agents in the air inside the lean-to. The lean-tos, generally placed along trails for anyone to use, are notorious for being overrun with rodents.
Dr. Roy Steigbigel, of Stony Brook University Hospital, said at Friday's press conference there are no known cases of contracting the disease from rodent bites, although he said as a scientist, he remains open to the possibility that this was a new way of transmitting hantavirus.
Nevertheless, the CDC does list rodent bites as a means of getting hantavirus, and Manning told the Enterprise people can get it this way.
Steigbigel said if test results from the state and CDC confirm hantavirus, experts will likely be sent to the area where Vaughan camped, as well as to his Stony Brook home, to take samples for further review.
Symptoms of what is called hantavirus pulmonary syndrome show up roughly one to five weeks after transmission. They include fatigue, fever, muscle aches, dizziness, nausea and shortness of breath.
"It feels like cement blocks sitting on your chest," Manning said.
The mortality rate is 38 percent, Manning said.
It is rare that humans become infected with the hantavirus, and there are only a handful of cases ever recorded in New York state. The virus is more commonly found in the Southwest. The most recently known New York state case involved a Long Island man who died last summer.
But hantavirus has been in the news recently.
In September, CDC announced that there have been nine people with confirmed cases of hantavirus in Yosemite National Park in California. Three of those people died.
Eight of those visitors were exposed to the virus while staying at the Signature Tent Cabins in Curry Village in Yosemite National Park. The other visitor with hantavirus infection was probably exposed to the virus while hiking or staying at the High Sierra Camps, located about 15 miles from Curry Village, according to the CDC.
The Signature Tent Cabins in Curry Village were closed in September.
"There's evidence of clusters of cases from the past," Manning said, "but that seems to be the exception rather than the rule. The rule seems to be more that there are sporadic individual cases."
Manning said the CDC has had an ongoing study going in collaboration with Montana Tech University in Butte, Mont., for the last 15 years or more to study how much of the rodent population carries the virus.
"They ask the question, What percentage of the deer mice are positive (with hantavirus)?" Manning said. "The answer comes back typically somewhere in the range of 10 to 14 percent. That varies, according to a number of things, but that's a reasonable average."
Asked why there aren't more cases of hantavirus, Manning said one reason is that mice and humans don't come into contact frequently enough.
"I think opportunity where deer mice and humans and white-footed mice and humans come in contact, that's not an everyday, routine event for disease transmission. Yes, you have occasions where people are camping, where people are hiking, where people are outdoors, and the opportunity for an exposure occurs because both the mouse and the human are in the same place at the same time. For most of us, that's seldom the case."
Vaughan said he saw numerous mice while staying at the lean-to, but said he wasn't aware something was seriously wrong with him until he received a call from his doctor on Sept. 28. The doctor told him immediately go to the emergency room at the Stony Brook University Hospital. The doctor noticed that Vaughan's blood oxygen level was very low in tests that had been performed two days earlier, when he had first started feeling ill, he said.
"She said I had virtual complete respiratory failure and actually if I hadn't gone in that day, I might not have made it," he said.
Vaughan remained in the hospital for five days until Oct. 2. The hantavirus test results came back two days later.
While in the hospital, Vaughn said he had headaches and nausea, was short of breath and was put on oxygen.
But shortly after getting out of the hospital, he felt good enough to go hiking again and returned to the Adirondacks. This past Saturday, he told forest rangers at the Adirondack Mountain Club's High Peaks Information Center about his fight with hantavirus.
On Wednesday, state Department of Environmental Conservation spokesman Dave Winchell said his agency is aware of the claim.
"We've been in contact with the New York State Department of Health," he said. "They are aware of this. They are looking into it and seeking to either determine whether it's hantavirus or not. If it is so, then we'll work with the Department of Health to determine how we address this."
Word of Vaughan's situation first got out late last week when he raised the issue on an Internet forum for hikers.
"I thought it was important that people know about it," he said. "I think the DEC would go up there and test them."
Despite feeling ill recently, Vaughan went hiking this past weekend on Esther Mountain in Wilmington, less than a week after getting out of the hospital.
"I recovered pretty quickly," Vaughan said. "I feel fine."
Asked if would camp in an lean-to again, Vaughan told the Enterprise he would, except this time, he would bring some mousetraps.
"It's so rare," Vaughan said of a person getting hantavirus. "I was unlucky the one time."
By Friday's press conference, however, he was reconsidering whether he will camp in lean-tos again.
"Many avoid them because of the high mouse population," he said.
Associated Press Writer Frank Eltman contributed to this report from Stony Brook.