What is hantavirus?
Hantaviruses are a group of viruses that may be carried by some rodents. Some of these viruses can cause a rare but deadly disease called hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS). HPS is an infectious disease characterized by flu-like symptoms that can rapidly progress into potentially life-threatening breathing problems. Hantaviruses are carried by several types of rodents, particularly the deer mouse. People contract hantavirus primarily by breathing in air infected with hantaviruses that are shed in rodent urine and droppings.
Who gets hantavirus?
Anyone who comes into contact with rodents that carry hantavirus is at risk of HPS. Rodent infestation in and around the home remains the primary risk for hantavirus exposure. Even healthy individuals are at risk for HPS infection if exposed to the virus.
Any activity that puts you in contact with rodent droppings, urine, saliva, or nesting materials can place you at risk for infection. Hantavirus is spread when virus-containing particles from rodent urine, droppings, or saliva are stirred into the air. It is important to avoid actions that raise dust, such as sweeping or vacuuming. Infection occurs when you breathe in virus particles.
Cases of HPS occur sporadically, usually in rural areas where forests, fields and farms offer suitable habitat for the virus’s rodent hosts. Barns, outbuildings and sheds are potential sites where people may be exposed to the virus.
There are several other ways rodents may spread hantavirus to people:
If a rodent with the virus bites someone, the virus may be spread to that person, but this type of transmission is rare.
Researchers believe that people may be able to get the virus if they touch something that has been contaminated with rodent urine, droppings, or saliva, and then touch their nose or mouth. Researchers also suspect people can become sick if they eat food contaminated by urine, droppings, or saliva from an infected rodent.
The types of hantavirus that cause HPS in the United States cannot be transmitted from one person to another. For example, you cannot get the virus from touching or kissing a person who has HPS or from a health care worker who has treated someone with the disease. You also cannot get the virus from a blood transfusion in which the blood came from a person who became ill with HPS and survived.
Signs and symptoms of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS)
Early symptoms include fatigue, fever and muscle aches, especially in the large muscle groups-thighs, hips, back, and sometimes shoulders. These symptoms are universal in people who have contracted HPS.
There may also be headaches, dizziness, chills, and abdominal problems, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. About half of all HPS patients experience these symptoms.
Four to 10 days after the initial phase of illness, the late symptoms of HPS appear. These include coughing and shortness of breath, with the sensation of, as one survivor put it, a “…tight band around my chest and a pillow over my face” as the lungs fill with fluid.
Early symptoms such as fever, muscle aches, and fatigue are easily confused with influenza.
If someone has fever, fatigue, shortness of breath and a history of potential rural rodent exposure, see a physician immediately.
Tell your physician you have been exposed to rodents.
There is no specific treatment, cure, or vaccine for hantavirus infection. However, if the disease is recognized early and the person is treated in an intensive care unit there is a better chance of recovery.
In intensive care, patients are intubated and given oxygen therapy to help them through the period of severe respiratory distress.
If the patient is experiencing full distress, it is less likely the treatment will be effective. HPS can be fatal and has a mortality rate of 38 percent.
Eliminate or minimize contact with rodents in your home, workplace or campsite. Seal up holes and gaps in your home or garage. Place traps in and around your home to decrease rodent infestation. Clean up any easy-to-get food. If you live in an area where the carrier rodents are known to live, try to keep your home, vacation place, workplace or campsite clean.