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HELENA (AP) — Tests have confirmed that a Cascade County woman died of hantavirus, state health officials reported Friday.

The death Thursday was Montana's fourth fatality and 18th case of the life-threatening disease that is carried and spread by wild rodents.

Ken Pekoc, spokesman for the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, said the woman, already suffering from advanced stages of the illness, was hospitalized Wednesday in Great Falls and died early Thursday.

The last confirmed hantavirus cases in the state were in April and June 2001, in Gallatin and Teton counties.

The first case in Montana was diagnosed in September 1993. The three previous victims were men from Great Falls, Cut Bank and Malta.

Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome is a severe respiratory infection spread by rodent urine, feces or saliva. People typically become sick about two weeks after breathing virus particles stirred up in a rodent-infested space, such as when sweeping a mouse nest out of a barn or cabin.

The flulike symptoms include fever, shortness of breath, chills, muscle and body aches, cough, nausea, headache, diarrhea and abdominal pain.

No cure for the disease has been developed, but hospital care is needed to help a victim's body fight the infection.

Pekoc said health officials have advised people with symptoms that include shortness of breath to see a doctor and indicate whether they have been exposed to rodents recently.

Through the end of March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had reported a total of 335 cases of hantavirus in the United States. Thirty-eight percent of all reported cases have resulted in death, according to the agency.

Cases have been reported in 31 states, including most of the Western half of the country and some Eastern states as well.

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