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What is Hantavirus?

By Liji Thomas, MD

Hantavirus is a member of the Bunyavirus family, which is usually found on rodents. They are transmitted from rodents to man through urine, saliva or droppings, which may be carried through the air as an aerosol and breathed in.

One variety, the Sin Nombre virus, which is carried on a species of mouse called the deer mouse, causes an illness called hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, or HPS. The virus is not infectious to pets or predators. Moreover, the illness is not transmitted from person to person.

Other hantaviruses cause other diseases, such as hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS), especially in Asia.

HPS starts from one to six weeks after inhaling the virus. Beginning with symptoms of fever at or above 38.3oC (101oF), headache, muscle pain, tiredness, nausea and vomiting. It progresses in severe cases to breathlessness, due to fluid flooding the lungs. It requires hospitalization and may progress to a total inability to breathe. Death follows in a third of patients.

Complications of Hantavirus infection

  • Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS)
  • Renal failure
  • Low blood pressure
  • Bluish coloration of the lips and skin, due to lung failure leading to deoxygenation of the blood

Diagnosis and Treatment

Hantavirus infection should be considered if there is a history of possible rodent exposure, with symptoms agreeing with those of HPS. Diagnostic tests include ELISA-IgM capture tests, and IgG tests, as well as other serological tests. Immunohistochemistry is another specific and sensitive test for the presence of antibody to the virus.

Early supportive care for such patients is the only available treatment. This may involve the use of ventilation, oxygen inhalation and special forms of blood oxygenation outside the body. There is no specific drug to eliminate the virus infection. Recovery is not followed by any long-term sequelae.

Prevention

  • Keep rodents out of your home by sealing all openings which are above a quarter-inch wide.
  • Keep food in rodent-proof containers
  • Take precautions against inhaling infected air while cleaning out or working in any rodent-infested area
    • Use gloves and a mask
    • Never stir up the dust
    • Soak the area in bleach solution (350ml bleach to every 4.5 liters of water), and then wipe it out rather than sweep it clean.
    • All dead rodents should be disposed of safely and in accordance with local codes, after double-bagging them, along with whatever cleaning materials used.
    • Always disinfect your gloves before you remove them, and then wash your hands immediately with soap and water, or with an alcohol-based sanitizer.
  • While camping out
    • Use a groundsheet to sleep on rather than the ground.
    • Look for and avoid using places with signs of rat infestation as campsites.
    • Avoid attracting rodents by storing food in suitable containers, and disposing of trash properly.
    • If you are staying in a cabin which is not regularly used, first air it well for 30 minutes. Then disinfect it with bleach as above, and wipe it down before use.

References

Last Updated: Oct 12, 2015

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