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Hantavirus claims an Atlin cornerstone

The annual music festival in Atlin, B.C. may be months away, but at least one organizer knows what a focus of this year's event will be.

The annual music festival in Atlin, B.C. may be months away, but at least one organizer knows what a focus of this year’s event will be.

This year’s event will be a tribute to one of its founding board members, Gerhard Holmok, said Manu Keggenhoff, another board member.

Holmok, better known as Ged, died at Whitehorse General Hospital on Jan. 9. He had been admitted the day before. The evening he died, the festival board was holding a meeting.

It was a sudden and rare illness that claimed his life. Last week, it was announced he died because of the hantavirus.

The rare virus causes severe flu-like symptoms, including nausea and shortness of breath. It spreads through infected feces, urine or saliva from deer mice.

Infected particles land in dust. If the air is dry, the infection can remain in an area for about an hour. In moist areas, the infection can stay for up to 18 days, said Dr. Ronald Chapman, chief medical officer of health for B.C.‘s northern health authority. When dust with infected particles is disturbed, the virus enters the air.

The virus has a mortality rate of 60 per cent, according to the Yukon’s Department of the Environment.

The virus can only be passed by mice to humans, said Chapman. People can’t spread it to each other. Cases “pop up at odd places at odd times,” Chapman said, adding he doubts another case will be found in Atlin.

It’s extremely rare in this area. The last time a person in British Columbia had the virus was in 2007, and they got it while travelling overseas, said Chapman. The furthest north a case in humans was found before was in Williams Lake, B.C., he said.

The best defence against the virus is keeping the deer mouse population down. Areas where mice have been should be ventilated for over 30 minutes before cleaning, and disinfectant should be poured over the areas before beginning. People should wear gloves, goggles and masks with filters when cleaning areas where the mice have been, according to HealthLink B.C. These masks are not the same as the ones used when painting or installing insulation.

Health officials will not be trapping mice in Atlin, B.C., at this time, said Eryn Collins, a spokesperson for Northern Health. The cold weather makes finding the rodents difficult, she said. Health officials don’t want to expose more people to the virus, and knowing how prevalent it is won’t change any information they have right now, she said.

The most they can do is communicate with health workers there by teleconference and make sure residents have enough information. A public information session will be held once it’s warmer, said Collins.

It was at Atlin’s music festival that Holmok met the great love of his life, Marie-Christine Benoit, while sorting recycling and planting garlic. The two married in 2011, at a Quebec vineyard. In November, they travelled to New Zealand.

After the trip, Benoit returned to Quebec, where she’s a student. She was there when her husband died. She has since returned to Atlin, B.C., but could not be reached for comment.

Holmok was a ranger. He was “the best prepared guide, ever,” said Keggenhoff. “You knew you could survive, like, for 12 weeks when you had Geddy along.”

He was also a volunteer firefighter, a guard at the jail and a supervisor at the Atlin Teen Centre. He was a history buff and excellent Settlers of Catan player, said Trudy Ewing, one of his co-workers. Because Holmok and Benoit’s friends in Atlin couldn’t attend their wedding, Ewing hosted a celebration at her house.

The couple’s devotion was obvious. “They were made for each other,” said Ewing.

Holmok, originally from Quebec, came to Atlin in 1993. He is predeceased by his father, Eugen and survived by his mother, Ursula, and his brother, Bernhard. His brother was unable to attend the Jan. 21 memorial at the Atlin Recreation Centre. He works for the federal government and is currently stationed in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Holmok would have turned 46 next week.

Contact Meagan Gillmore at