In late March 2020, an unidentified man from Yunnan Province died on a chartered bus while heading to his workplace in Shandong Province, China. The man tested positive for hantavirus and the passengers that were on the bus were tested for the virus.
The news of another virus on loose stirred fear and panic among people. While the world is grappling to contain the spread of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-COV-2) that causes Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), the emergence of another virus could spell another pandemic. This would prove fatal due to overstretched health resources that are being directed to fight the novel coronavirus that emerged from Wuhan town, China in December 2019.
However, hantavirus spread mainly by rodents isn't a new viral infection. Its occurrence is rare but when it does, it can be fatal. Its mortality rate according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is 38%. And, according to Insider, over a third of people who get hantavirus die from the condition.
Many people who are infected by hantavirus develop mild symptoms.
What are Hantaviruses?
Hantaviruses refer to a family of viruses that are transmitted mainly by rodents which according to CDC can cause "varied disease syndromes in people worldwide."
There are two categories of hantaviruses: New World and Old World. The New World hantaviruses occur in the Americas while the Old World hantaviruses occur worldwide; mostly in Asia and Europe. The New World hantaviruses cause Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) disease while the Old World hantaviruses cause Hemorrhagic Fever with Renal Syndrome (HFRS) disease.
The different strains of hantaviruses are hosted by specific species of rodents which make it possible for the viruses to infect humans when humans come into close contact with urine, faeces and saliva of an infected rodent. It is rare but possible for a person to contract hantavirus when bitten by an infected rodent.
How Hantaviruses are Spread
As noted above, rodents act as reservoir of the hantaviruses. These viruses are spread when humans breathe in air which is contaminated with the viruses or rarely by a bite from a rodent infected by the virus. "When fresh rodent urine, droppings, or nesting materials are stirred up, tiny droplets containing the virus get into the air, " states CDC.
According to CDC, scientists believe that people may get the virus when they touch surfaces that have been contaminated by the virus. Also, they suspect that people may get the virus when they eat food contaminated by droppings, saliva or urine from an infected rodent.
Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS)
Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome is a respiratory disease. It is spread by infected rodents. People get the disease when they come into close contact with rodents that carry hantaviruses.
Hantaviruses infection mostly occurs in rural areas because they provide a suitable environment for the different strains of the viruses to thrive because of the large numbers of rodents in these places e.g. farms, fields and forests. The infestation of rodents can also occur in areas around work or homes e.g. in sheds and barns.
Rarely is hantavirus pulmonary syndrome spread through human-to-human contact. In the United States, this phenomenon has not been recorded but in Chile and Argentina, person-to-person transmission has been evidenced. Pertaining to this occurrence, CDC notes, "In Chile and Argentina, rare cases of person-to-person transmission have occurred among close contacts of a person who was ill with a type of antivirus called Andes virus."
The incubation period is thought to be between 1-8 weeks due to limited data as there are fewer cases of hantavirus infection. The symptoms range from mild to severe. They include:
- Muscle aches
- Abdominal problems (e.g. nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea)
- Difficulty breathing
Hemorrhagic Fever with Renal Syndrome (HFRS)
HFRS is spread worldwide but is most common in eastern Asia especially in Russia, Korea and China.
According to Insider, depending on which strain causes the disease, HFRS kills between 1% and 15% of people who contract the disease.
How HFRS is Spread
HFRS is spread in the same manner HPS is transmitted. It is spread by rodents which are natural hosts of hantaviruses. "People can become infected with these viruses and develop HFRS after exposure to aerosolized urine, droppings, or saliva of infected rodents or after exposure to dust from their nests. Transmission may also occur when infected urine or these other materials are directly introduced into broken skin or onto the mucous members of the eyes, nose, or mouth, " states CDC.
Additionally, people may get the disease when they are bitten by rodents. Human-to-human transmission is possible but is extremely rare.
The incubation period is between 1 to 14 days. In rare cases, it may take up to 8 weeks for a person to exhibit symptoms related to HFRS once they are infected.
The symptoms may range from mild to severe. They are:
- Abdominal pain
- Back pain
- Inflammation of the eyes
- Low blood pressure
- Vascular leakage
- Acute shock
- Acute kidney failure
CDC notes, "The severity of the virus varies depending upon the virus causing the infection. Hantaan and Dobrava virus infections usually cause severe symptoms, while Seoul, Saaremaa, and Puumula virus infections are usually more moderate."
There is no cure or vaccination for hantavirus infection. Additionally, there is no specific treatment for the viral infection. However, CDC notes, "we do know that if infected individuals are recognized early and receive medical care in an intensive care unit, they may do better. In intensive care, patients are intubated and given oxygen therapy to help them through the period of severe respiratory distress."
If a person infected by hantavirus doesn't seek early medica care (the symptoms have become worse), the treatment administered won't work out effectively.
There are several precautions you can take to avoid contracting hantavirus infection. They include:
- Sealing up holes inside and outside you home which act as hiding/dwelling places of rodents.
- Placing traps in and around your home to reduce rodent population.
- Ensuring you don't leave food particles in the open since they will attract rodents.
- Using a facemask when cleaning your house or compound to avoid inhaling stirred virus-containing particles from rodents' saliva, urine and droppings.
© 2020 Alianess Benny Njuguna