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Dead Student's House Was Not Infested, Worker Says

August 02, 1993|MARTIN FORSTENZER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MAMMOTH LAKES — The house of a University of California researcher whose death may have been caused by the mysterious, rodent-linked hantavirus was not infested by mice despite earlier reports to that effect, a colleague said Sunday.

"We don't believe that this cabin presented any additional exposure than other residences in this area," said Daniel Dawson, a UC research associate and resident manager of the Valentine Reserve, where UC San Diego graduate student Jeanne Messier, 27, had been living and working since June.

"And she wasn't trapping mice," he said at a news conference. "Her work consisted of observing eggs and baby birds in nests."

The Valentine Reserve is in the Old Mammoth section of the resort town, near a residential area.

Although Messier's death matched the description of the disease that has been blamed for dozens of deaths in the Four Corners area of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah, that diagnosis has not been confirmed. A diagnosis may be available today, officials said.

Researchers were testing blood samples from dozens of Messier's co-workers, and rodents collected in the Mammoth Lakes area were being checked to determine if they carry "diseases that are of special concern," said Dr. Richard Jackson of the California Department of Health Services.

He said several other diseases, including plague or other types of viruses, could have caused symptoms like Messier's.

But the similarity of the researcher's symptoms to those of hantavirus victims in the Four Corners area made that illness particularly suspect, he said. Those symptoms include acute respiratory illness leading very rapidly to death.

Messier died at Washoe Medical Center in Reno within 48 hours of coming to Centinela Mammoth Hospital complaining of respiratory problems, said Dr. Jack Bertman of the Mono County Health Department.

Health officials said that if the woman's illness turns out to be hantavirus, they would undertake a comprehensive health study of the Sierra region to try to determine if there have been previous cases that went undetected.

Messier's boyfriend, who was acting as an assistant on her ornithological study, had been living with her for about a week before she became ill, Dawson said. He has been interviewed and examined and has left the area, he said.

Scott Christiensen, the Valentine Reserve's caretaker, lives with his wife on the ecological site. He said he did not feel particularly at risk.

"It's a tragedy that Jeanne has died, but I don't feel it's a widespread thing. I look at it as less than the risk of being struck by lightning, or less than being killed in a car accident," he said.

"The fact that it's so unexplained and sudden--that's what makes it so scary," he said.

Health experts advised residents, campers and other visitors to the Eastern Sierra to avoid contact with rodents and to keep food containers covered tightly.

Rodent excrement in cabins should be mopped with a disinfectant solution rather than swept up or vacuumed, experts said, because particles containing the virus might be inhaled during sweeping or vacuuming.

Incubation period for the disease can be up to six weeks.

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