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HELENA — The state is launching a public information campaign in the wake of three recent hantavirus cases, two of which proved fatal.

A young man from the Helena area and a young woman from Cascade County died of the rodent-borne virus within the last two weeks. A Dillon man in his 60s is recovering from the disease after being released from the Barrett Hospital and Health Care last week.

"A large education campaign is our only response to this right now," said Jim Murphy, a health specialist with the state medical lab in Helena, at Gov. Judy Martz's monthly press conference Wednesday.

The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is sending pamphlets, tapes and information that state officials plan to pass on to county health workers. Public service announcements from 10 to 30 seconds long are being distributed to television and radio news broadcasters.

State officials said awareness is key to preventing deaths from this life-threatening disease.

Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome is an airborne virus spread through human contact with rodent droppings, urine and saliva. The national fatality rate from the disease is 38 percent; Mon-tana's death rate is 25 percent.

The symptoms of hantavirus are similar to the flu, including headaches, muscle aches and shortness of breath. Symptoms usually appear two to three weeks after expose, but the disease can live in the body up to 45 days after exposure.

Five Montanans have died from the disease since it surfaced in New Mexico in 1993, while 15 other state residents contracted it and survived. The five Montana deaths occurred in Glacier, Cascade, Lewis and Clark and Phillips counties.

No cases were reported in Montana last year but three cropped up this month already. The last three cases are linked to rodent exposure in the victims' homes.

"It is of some concern," said Dr. Todd Damrow, state epidemiologist. "It is something to be aware of but not alarmed or panicked about."

State health workers are urging Montanans to rid their homes and offices of mice. Rodent nests or droppings should be soaked with a disinfectant, such as a bleach and water solution, before they are removed. Handlers should wear rubber gloves and take caution not to sweep or vacuum any of the dust from the area into the air.

Homes must be sealed against future rodent invasions, as well. Out buildings, such as barns, are not nearly as large of a hantavirus concern, officials said.

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