By Jennifer Dobner
SALT LAKE CITY (Reuters) - Two people in Utah have died following exposure to hantavirus, a rare but deadly disease of the lungs spread by rodents, health officials said on Tuesday.
The fatalities, the first from the virus in the state since 2009, occurred over the last four weeks in central Utah's Millard County and in Salt Lake County, said Rebecca Wood, an official at the Utah Department of Health.
The two deceased were adults, state epidemiologist Jodee Baker said. The cases were not linked but each individual was exposed to rodents a few weeks before becoming ill, Baker said. Privacy laws prevent officials from releasing the names or genders of the deceased. Authorities did not release the exact date of each death either.
State epidemiologists are working closely with health officials in Millard and Salt Lake counties to gather more details and to make sure no one else has been exposed, Baker said.
Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome can be spread through contact with saliva of infected rodents - most often common deer mice - or by breathing in dust containing rodent urine or droppings in rodent-infested areas, the CDC said on its website.
Symptoms include high fever, muscle aches and chills. Other symptoms include cough, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and headache. The virus has an unusually long incubation period of between two and five weeks, and can be mistaken for the flu, Baker said.
"Utah has maybe one case a year," Baker said. "It's really rare that we would have more than one case, period. And to have them both be fatalities so early in the summer months, that's a concern."
Instances of the disease increase during summer months and the data suggest most patients are sickened following exposures to mice feces or urine while cleaning out garages, sheds or other structures that were closed for extended periods.
To reduce the chance of exposure to hantavirus, health officials recommend spraying down rodent droppings with a mixture of water and bleach before trying to remove. Wearing a mask and gloves, and cleaning the area a second time with a disinfectant is also recommended.
Nationwide, 587 people were sickened with hantavirus between 1993 and 2011, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Deaths occurred in 36 percent of those cases.
Including the two most recent cases, Utah has had 31 reported cases since the early 1990s and 32 percent of those cases were fatal, Baker said. The last death was in 2009, she said.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Sandra Maler)