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Murder By Poverty: Honor Student Dies From Dilapidated Housing

A 17-year-old Navajo girl has died of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome, a respiratory disease likely caused by contact with infected rodent droppings.

A 17-year-old Navajo girl has died of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome, a serious respiratory disease likely caused by contact with infected rodent droppings.

The teen, of Cameron, Arizona, died January 8, said Del Yazzie, an epidemiologist for the Navajo Epidemiology Center. She was seen at Tuba City Regional Health Care in Tuba City, Arizona, where doctors referred her to the University of New Mexico Hospital. She died en route to Albuquerque, Yazzie said. Officials in Coconino County, Arizona, and the Arizona Department of Health Services independently confirmed the death.

An honor student, the girl lived in a dilapidated house with six other family members, and Yazzie believes various structural and social factors likely put the girl at higher risk of contracting the disease.

“A lot of it has it has to do with poverty and housing conditions,” he said. The Cameron area is part of the former Bennett Freeze, a 1.6-million-acre swath of Navajo land to the west of the Hopi Reservation. All development came to a halt in 1966 when then-Commissioner of Indian Affairs Robert Bennett “froze” the area in response to longstanding disputes between the Navajo and Hopi.

The freeze was lifted in 2006 when the two tribes came to a formal agreement, and President Barack Obama in 2009 signed a bill repealing the freeze. But new construction and even basic repairs to existing structures have remained stalled as the Navajo Nation seeks necessary funding.

An estimated 6,700 residents of the former Bennett Freeze are still living in conditions that haven’t changed in the last half-century. Yazzie pointed to these conditions as possible contributing factors to the death, but added that keeping homes and outbuildings clean can help minimize the risk. No vaccine for Hantavirus exists.

“We are releasing information about preventing Hantavirus because that’s the best thing to do,” he said. “If you’re cleaning out a garage, storage area or even a home where there could be rodent droppings, be careful.”

According to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome is a rare but potentially fatal disease most often spread by infected deer mice. Cases occur sporadically and usually in rural areas where rodents live in barns, outbuildings and sheds.

The virus is transmitted to people when they come in contact with infected rodent droppings, said Amy Rowland, a spokeswoman for the CDC. It is not spread from one human to another.

“It’s contracted when you breathe in the droppings, the urine,” she said. “Rodent feces are small, and you may not be able to see them. To prevent infection, you need to be aware of your surroundings, those places where rodent droppings might be.”

After first exposure to the virus, it can take between seven days and three weeks for symptoms to appear. The illness begins with a fever, muscle aches and headache.

Historically, most cases of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome have occurred in the desert Southwest. In 1993, the first-ever known cases of Hantavirus were reported in the Four Corners region, where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah meet. The first reported death was a Navajo woman, who succumbed to a then-unknown illness in April 1993. A Navajo man went to the hospital a month later with similar symptoms; he also died in what was the beginning of the first outbreak of Hantavirus.

Number of reported cases of hantavirus in the United States in 1993.

Since 1993, 100 people have contracted Hantavirus in New Mexico, with 76 reported cases in Arizona, 93 in Colorado and 66 in California, according to data from the CDC. A total of 690 cases have been reported nationwide, with 36 percent resulting in death.

The Navajo Nation sees cases on a yearly basis, Yazzie said, though it occurs most often during the summertime.

“It is still a rare disease, but we do get yearly cases on Navajo,” he said. “Most of them aren’t fatal.”