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Hantavirus Risk Seen as Minimal

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although assuring that the risk to the public is minimal, park officials pledged to a congressional panel Tuesday that they will step up efforts to educate the public about virus-infected mice at Channel Islands National Park.

“Although high mouse densities and the presence of hantavirus antibodies combine to create some risk, the risks to [park] visitors are low, finite and are insufficient to consider closing the park,” said Maureen Finnerty of the National Park Service.

Tim Setnicka, superintendent of the Channel Islands National Park, said the park plans to increase the number of warning signs and fliers to be distributed to the public.

Setnicka also plans to hold a public seminar in Ventura County in July aimed at educating people who reach the islands via private boats--many of whom might not see the hantavirus warnings posted at island information centers. Details of the meeting have not yet been completed.

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Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) convened Tuesday’s hearing before the House Subcommittee on National Parks and Public Lands to address growing concerns that large populations of mice infected with the hantavirus might pose a serious threat to the more than 60,000 tourists who visit the islands each year.

The congressman said he trusts the park service will be vigilant in educating the public on the risks. But Gallegly said he also plans to verify the park service’s promises by reviewing the monthly reports he requested that the agency make on the status of its educational efforts.

“This was a firm commitment from the National Park Service that they intend to adequately inform everyone and not downplay the issue,” he said.

Hantavirus, which is transmitted by mice, is responsible for 11 deaths in California and 94 deaths nationwide since 1993, officials said. Although as many as 70% of the mice on some of the five Channel Islands carry the hantavirus, no visitors to the islands have reported contracting the disease, officials said.

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But safety concerns were heightened earlier this month when an Oxnard family returned from a visit to Santa Rosa Island and reported their 7-year-old son had been playing with a mouse, which later tested positive for the hantavirus antibodies. The boy is being monitored for the potentially deadly disease, which can spread to people through bites and excrement-tainted dust.

Experts from the Center for Disease Control and the California Department of Health Services, who also attended Tuesday’s meeting, agreed with committee members that the situation still merits close monitoring and more public education.

There is no known cure for the hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, a respiratory disease caused by the sin nombre virus and carried by the common deer mouse. Nationwide, there have been 217 reported cases in the past six years, and 43% of those ended in death.

Hantavirus was first identified in 1993. Since then it has been detected in 30 states, mostly in the western United States. People can become infected by breathing air contaminated by the feces or urine of mice that carry the virus, being bitten by infected mice, or ingesting food or water contaminated by their droppings. The virus causes flu-like symptoms that eventually cause the lungs to fill with liquid.

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Park officials have rejected proposals to trap or kill the virus-infected mice at Channel Islands National Park, saying they would be both impractical and dangerous to the future of the islands’ natural ecosystems.

“We take our cues from the [Centers for Disease Control], and the CDC has assured us that through increased public education, we can minimize the risk of this virus,” said David Barna, spokesman for the National Park Service.


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