Belmont Park worker dies of suspected rare rodent-borne virus

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Diana Williams has more on the death of a Belmont Park worker.

New York state health officials believe a backstretch worker at Belmont Park died from a rare virus found in rodent droppings.

The state health department said Friday that the racetrack employee was found unconscious June 1 outside the backstretch housing unit where the employee lived. The employee died June 6 at a hospital. His or her name was not released.

A preliminary investigation suggests the employee died from hantavirus, which is usually transmitted when people breathe in rodent droppings in confined areas.

The New York Racing Association says it will overhaul its pest control practices in light of the suspected hantavirus death.

Hantavirus is rare and cannot be spread from one person to another. Only 728 cases were reported in the United States between 1993 and 2017, with five sporadic cases in New York.

FACTS ABOUT HANTAVIRUS:

Is Hantavirus Common?

No. Hantavirus infection is rare. From 1993 through January 2017, CDC has received reports of 728 cases of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome in the United States. The majority of these occurred or had exposure in the western United States. In New York State, there have been five identified cases of hantavirus since 1993, not including the suspected case reported today.

Are visitors to the park in danger of contracting Hantavirus?

No. Though common in rodents, Hantavirus is rarely transmitted to, or contagious between, humans. People attending races and other events at the park will not come in contact with the areas where the disease was likely identified, which was in employee housing in a part of the backstretch and is not open to general public.

How is Hantavirus spread?

Hantavirus is spread from wild rodents to people. The virus, which is found in rodent urine, saliva, and feces, can be easily aerosolized in confined spaces when disturbed by rodents or human activities, such as sweeping or vacuuming. Breathing in those aerosolized excretions is the most common form of transmission; however, one can also become infected by touching the mouth or nose after handling contaminated materials. While rare, a rodent's bite can also spread the virus.

Hantavirus is not spread from person-to-person. The virus, which is able to survive in the environment for a few hours or days (for example, in dirt and dust in the shade or in rodent nests) can be killed by most household disinfectants, such as bleach, detergents or alcohol. Exposure to the sun's UV rays can also kill the virus.

Will animals at the Park contract Hantavirus?

No. Horses, dogs, and cats cannot contract Hantavirus.

What are the symptoms of Hantavirus, and how long after infection do they appear?

Symptoms usually appear within two to four weeks of infection, but can appear as early as one week or as late as six weeks after infection. Initial symptoms are general and flu-like: fever (101 F and above); headache; abdominal, joint, and lower back pain; sometimes nausea and vomiting. However, the primary symptom of this disease is difficulty in breathing, which is caused by fluid build-up in the lungs, and which quickly progresses to an inability to breathe. Infected individuals may die of respiratory failure or shock.

What should individuals do if they suspect Hantavirus infection?

If any combination of the symptoms described above - especially difficulty in breathing - appear after direct or indirect exposure to rodents, they should immediately contact their doctor and be sure to mention any exposure to rodents.

Is there a cure or vaccine against Hantavirus infection?

There is no specific treatment, cure or vaccine for hantavirus infection. However, if infected individuals are recognized early and receive immediate medical care, they may experience better health outcomes.

Is it safe to travel where Hantavirus infection has been reported?

Yes. Travel to and within areas where hantavirus infection has been reported is safe. Yet, visitors to rural areas and nature resorts - campers, hikers, and others who take part in activities outdoors - can become exposed to rodent urine, saliva, or droppings, which present possible exposure to the virus. Therefore, individuals should take appropriate precautions to protect themselves.

To minimize the risk of Hantavirus infection, the following precautions are recommended:
--Avoid touching live or dead rodents. Do not disturb rodents, burrows or nests.
--Before occupying abandoned or unused cabins, open them up to air them out. Inspect for rodents and do not use cabins if signs of rodent infestation such as droppings or nests exist.
--If sleeping outdoors, check potential campsite grounds for rodent droppings and burrows.
--Disinfect droppings and nesting materials by spraying with a disinfectant and wear kitchen gloves. Dispose of sprayed materials in a plastic bag.
--Avoid sleeping near woodpiles or garbage areas, which are commonly frequented by rodents.
--Avoid sleeping on bare ground; use a tent with a floor, mat or elevated cots if they are available.
--Do not leave pet food in feeding dishes.
--Store foods in rodent-proof containers and promptly discard, bury or burn all garbage in accordance with campsite regulations.

CLICK HERE for more information on hantavirus.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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