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N.M. Schools Taking Steps To Battle 'Mystery' Virus

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Schools in New Mexico are arming themselves with bleach, plastic bags, and mousetraps to combat the hantavirus, dubbed this summer the "mystery'' virus, that has killed 20 people across the country, 10 in New Mexico alone.

In addition, the virus has been confirmed in 35 people, 14 of whom live in New Mexico, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The virus is spread through fumes or airborne dust particles from the urine and feces of the deer mouse, a rodent found across the country.

State and Indian health officials are warning school nurses across the Four Corners area--the point at which New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah meet--to use extra caution when students have fever, muscle aches, or breathing problems. These flu-like symptoms quickly develop into severe respiratory distress in hantavirus cases.

In the vast Central Consolidated School District, which includes much of New Mexico's portion of the Navajo Indian reservation where the hantavirus was first identified in late May, administrators, custodians, cooks, and nurses have been briefed by Indian Health Service officials on rodent control. The district has set aside $6,000 for rodent and pest control over the next 10 months, said Superintendent Bill Horton.

The neighboring Gallup-McKinley district, also covering part of the Navajo reservation, also has reserved money to eradicate mice when the rodents move indoors to escape the cold.

Prevention Through Education

"The good news for schools is that, if this is like other hanta family viruses, it's not likely to be affecting young children,'' said Gary L. Simpson, the medical director of the New Mexico Department of Health's infectious-diseases division. The youngest confirmed case is a 13-year-old girl.

After the first confirmed cases, the health department sent school nurses in the state's 88 districts guidelines on symptoms and prevention. The agency also sent tips on rodent control and cleanup to administrators in late August.

By the end of this month, schools serving Indian students across the Four Corners area may be using materials designed by I.H.S. and the Navajo Nation health-education program to teach students about the virus, said Philene S. Herrera, the Navajo program director. More than half of New Mexico's Indian children attend public schools.

Meanwhile, more than 100 miles away from the Navajo lands, custodians in the five schools of the Jemez Valley district are patching holes and pipes, destroying mice nests, and clearing shrubs around the buildings to wipe out rodent hiding places.

To avoid attracting mice, the Cuba Independent School District, roughly 200 miles from Gallup, has banned its 730 students from taking food into classrooms.

Health officials in the adjacent states said schools have access to C.D.C. guidelines through local health departments.

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