A Unique Partnership Tackles Hantavirus in the Navajo Nation
The American Southwest is among the most ruggedly beautiful areas of the country. But for residents of the Navajo Nation, which encompasses more than 27,000 square miles of this region, the environment also brings with it an increased exposure to the deadly hantavirus.
First identified in 1993 after an outbreak in the Navajo Nation, hantavirus is a potentially fatal viral infection that affects the lungs of its victims. After that initial outbreak, investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) discovered that hantavirus found in this region was transmitted through the droppings and urine of the deer mouse, a rodent common in the higher elevations of the Navajo Nation. More than 25 years later, the virus remains a health threat across the country.
“The initial cases of hantavirus during the summer of 1993 generated a lot of anxiety and concerns,” said Del Yazzie, an epidemiologist with the Navajo Epidemiology Center. “When you mention hantavirus, still to this day, people tend to pay special attention to the threat of the disease.”
With no vaccine available, prevention remains the only way to combat the spread of the disease. With that goal in mind, the Littlewater Chapter community of the Navajo Nation, the Navajo Epidemiology Center/Navajo Department of Health, CDC’s Division of High-Consequence Pathogens and Pathology and the CDC Foundation teamed up to initiate the Healthy Homes, Healthy People program. Through the program, launched in 2019, the partners hope to educate those at risk about hantavirus prevention and make selected homes less physically vulnerable to rodent access.
“We’ve developed a hantavirus disease surveillance report with identification of hot spots on the Navajo Nation and created educational materials on hantavirus, including posters, fact sheets and booklets.” Yazzie said. “We’ve also conducted radio forums and public service announcements through our KTNN tribal radio station. The reach of KTNN listenership spans across the Navajo Nation.”
The Healthy Homes, Healthy People partnership has identified 100 vulnerable homes for direct intervention. Through support of the CDC Foundation, the program is hiring, training and equipping local carpenters to identify and seal off likely rodent access points. And through generous funding and product donations from Reckitt Benckiser (RB), the program was able to purchase and procure project supplies, facilitate partnership building and provide program coordination.
“A lot of people on the Navajo Nation have old, dilapidated homes with holes where mice can easily enter, increasing the risk of hantavirus exposure,” Yazzie said. “Poverty remains a large contributor to the health status of our Navajo People, including living conditions, and continues to be a big challenge here on the Navajo Nation.”
Having traveled to CDC in Atlanta through his work with the Navajo Nation Tribal Advisory Committee, Yazzie says he had the CDC Foundation on his radar as an organization that might be able to help. Since collaboration began in early 2019, Yazzie says, the support of the CDC Foundation has been critical.
“The CDC Foundation has been instrumental in not only helping us form this partnership with the donor, but continuing to support our efforts with the project,” Yazzie said. “We didn’t have the capacity to do some of these things on our own, so the partnership between CDC and the Foundation has been quite instrumental.”
As of January 2017, 728 cases of hantavirus had been reported in 36 states across the country. Of those, nearly half occurred in or immediately surrounding the Navajo Nation. As hantavirus remains a health hazard, this initiative continues to share information and resources with the Navajo Nation residents on how to stay safe. In the process, Yazzie says, he has seen the community come together against this common threat in a way that has inspired him. Sustainability is at the heart of this initiative and the partners and community hope this work will not only lead to improved health outcomes, but will continue to empower generations for years to come.
“I’ve really never seen a community take ownership of a project, where they have made it their own, and that’s something that I’ve seen here,” Yazzie said. “We are actually doing something to help people improve their lives, and for me it’s been very rewarding.”
The Healthy Homes, Healthy People program aims to reduce the risk of exposure to hantavirus among residents of the Navajo Nation by providing rodent exclusion interventions and empowering residents to repair and reinforce their homes against rodents, and to increase awareness of hantavirus and its prevention among community members. This program is supported by Reckitt Benckiser.