Deadly Virus in Yosemite?

Dear Mamas,

Our family (me, hubby, and our two sons, 4 and 6) is scheduled to take a trip to Yosemite National Park at the end of the month. We made the plans and rented a cabin almost a year ago, but now I’m freaked out about the recent deaths that have occurred in people who got sick from visiting there. I’ve read that the illness is caused by contact with rodent droppings, but I don’t really get how that works. Do you have to touch them to get sick or be near someone who’s caught it?

If it were up to me I’d cancel the whole thing in a heartbeat, but hubby says I’m overreacting, since just 8 people have gotten sick out of thousands who visit the park. That’s true, but I figure if you’re the 1 your odds are 100%. Can you help us settle this one? I just want to keep my family safe.

Thanks for weighing in …



Hi Marlene,

Thank you for such a timely question. Believe me, I get it. Mama Bear is busy protecting those cubs from danger, while Papa Bear is itching to save the family’s adventure. First, the facts. Then you and Papa can sit down and evaluate the risk v. benefit of the trip.

The disease is caused by the hantavirus strain and is spread by rodents; in this case the deer mouse. The animals’ droppings, urine, and saliva contaminate dusty areas with virus. When the dust is disturbed, people breathe in the virus and become infected. Since mid-June, eight visitors to the park have gotten ill and three have died.

Most were infected after staying in the Boystown tents in the Curry Village area of the park. But one of the  cases had no contact with Curry Village. That person stayed miles away in four of Yosemite’s remote High Sierra tents.

Hantavirus illness begins one to six weeks after exposure to the virus. Early symptoms include feeling tired, fever, chills, and muscle aches. Some patients also get headaches, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and abdominal pain. Many go on to develop a cough and shortness of breath. Even healthy people who inhale hantavirus can get a fatal infection, but hantavirus does not spread from person to person. Contact with rodents is the only known risk. Overall mortality rate is 36% — very high.

There’s no specific treatment for hantavirus infection. Antiviral drugs do not help and there is no vaccine. The sooner people with hantavirus infection get intensive care, the better their chances of survival. Those who get care only when they can barely breathe have the worst prognosis.

Avoiding contact with rodents and their droppings is the only protection against hantavirus. This is difficult to guarantee in a National Park setting, but the are some recommendations if you do choose to go. Avoid areas like those listed above, where infected rodents have been documented. Do not go near or attempt to clean up rodent droppings. This will disturb them and stir up dust.

Take a close look at this National Park Service website for more information and FAQ.

The bottom line is this: while the odds of contracting the virus appear to be low, it is quite lethal to those unlucky enough to become infected, and may not be something you even want to contemplate for your little guys. Have a frank talk with Hubby, Mama Bear, and be clear about how scary this is to you. Share all the factual information you have and come to an agreement.

If push comes to shove, there’s something to be said for playing the I’m the mother, that’s why … card. What’s wrong with Disneyland, anyway?

Good luck!

~ The Mamas


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Rachel Zahn, MD is a pediatrician turned health writer who had three kids during medical school and pediatric training—crazy, huh?

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The Mama ButtonThe information provided by MamasOnCall is not intended as a substitute for professional advice, but is for information purposes only. You assume full responsibility for the health and well-being of your family. Talk with your healthcare provider about any questions you may have regarding a medical or psychiatric condition.