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Professor contracts rare virus – survives after being bitten by rodent in the Adirondacks

A 72-year-old Stony Brook professor tested positive on Oct. 22 for hantavirus, a rare and potentially fatal virus that has only been identified twice in New York, according to a New York State Department of Health press release.

Michael Vaughan said that he was bitten by a mouse while camping in a lean-to shelter in the Adirondacks on Aug. 26, but did not experience the pneumonia-like symptoms such as nausea, weakness and shortness of breath until late September.

Professor Michael Vaughan
Professor Michael Vaughan

Vaughan recovered from the infection after five days in Stony Brook University Hospital’s intensive care unit where he was treated for nausea, loss of appetite and low blood-oxygen levels.

Hantavirus is a rodent-borne infection believed to be transmitted from rodents to humans through internalization of the animals’ urine, droppings and saliva—usually through airborne particles.

In its most severe strain, hantavirus can develop into hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS), a fatal respiratory disease in humans.

In the United States, the virus cannot be spread from human to human, nor to humans from any other animal. It is only rarely spread from rodents to humans through a bite, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

However, the CDC said that a 1996 Argentine outbreak of HPS marked an exception because “evidence from this outbreak suggests that strains of hantaviruses in South America may be transmissible from person to person.”

Dr. Roy Steigbigel, an infectious disease specialist at Stony Brook University Hospital, is still studying the case because he believes that Vaughan’s infection was caused by inhaling affected matter and not by the bite.

Vaughan’s wife, who also had been staying in the shelter and had, according to Vaughan, been the one to sweep the lean-to out, did not show the hantavirus symptoms.

Steigbigel said that he was studying the possibility that Vaughan’s wife had a low intensity infection.

Hantavirus is not a problem on the Stony Brook University campus, though.

Despite several mouse sightings on campus this November, Steigbigel said students should not worry as there is “no evidence that [hantavirus] is present in mice in our area.”

Dallas W. Bauman III, the assistant vice president for campus residences, said in an email that it isn’t unusual to see mice taking shelter from the cold as winter approaches, but the university hires a pest-control contractor to deal with such incidents.

“We have had three reports of mice in the month of November, all of which have been addressed,” Bauman said. “and there has been no reported increase of mice this year over prior years.”

The most widespread breeds of mice which carry hantavirus in the United States seem to be the white-footed mouse and the deer mouse, which the CDC website describe as “deceptively cute” with “big eyes and ears.”

According to a university spokesperson, anyone wishing to report mice is urged to file a work request through the university’s website.

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