Vermont Health Department Works to Minimize Risk of Exposure to “Pocket Pet” Virus

For Immediate Release: Aug. 18, 2005

Contact: Communication Office

BURLINGTON – Vermont Health officials are following preventive guidelines recommended by the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention (CDC) concerning a rare rodent-borne virus that killed three people from Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Three of four people who received organ transplants from a donor infected with the rodent virus in May 2005 died less than a month after surgery. Health officials from the Rhode Island Department of Health, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the CDC, the New England Organ Bank and the transplant centers traced the source of the virus to a hamster bought in a pet store by the organ donor. Testing of animals at an Ohio-based distributor, MidSouth Distributors, revealed evidence of the virus in other rodents.

The Vermont Department of Health halted a planned shipment of mice and hamsters from MidSouth Distributors destined for a pet store in Chittenden County on July 18.

Pet stores in Vermont continue to cooperate with the Health Department to minimize the risk of transmission of the rodent-borne virus called LCMV (lymphocytic choriomeningitis virus) from rodents to humans. As a precautionary measure, national retail store chains have temporarily stopped the sale of potentially infected rodents (hamsters, guinea pigs, gerbils, rats, chinchillas and mice).

The CDC has advised that all states raise awareness of the virus so that proper precautions are taken with any rodent purchased from a pet store. The probability of infection is low. Symptoms in healthy people are usually unnoticeable or mild.

The virus is passed on through contact with rodent waste or nesting material. Thorough hand washing when handling the animals or cleaning their cage or living space is recommended. Children should be assisted with washing hands after contact with the animals, and pet rodents should never be kissed or held close to the face. Wild rodents, either in or around homes, can carry the disease and can pass it on to pets, or put people at risk who may come in contact through unintentional exposure.

Pregnant women and people with impaired immune systems are more vulnerable and could experience severe illness. The virus can harm a developing fetus in the early months of pregnancy, and the severity of the disease is amplified for people with compromised immunity.

“People buying animals such as hamsters or mice, regardless of distributor, should be made aware of the virus and take proper precautions,” said Dr. Robert Johnson, state veterinarian at the Vermont Department of Health. “Safeguards have been put in place - both here in Vermont and at a national level - to halt future transmission. Testing of rodents already purchased by Vermonters is not recommended. However - pregnant women (or women trying to become pregnant) and people with compromised immune systems should avoid all contact with rodents.”

The CDC advisory (Update: Interim Guidance for Minimizing Risk for Human Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis Virus Infection Associated with Pet Rodents):