The Grapevine

What Is Hantavirus? Facts About Rare, Rodent-Borne Illness

Recently, a woman from New Mexico passed away after contracting hantavirus, a rare disease known to be carried by rodents. A hantavirus infection can progress to Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS), which can be fatal.

Initially, doctors believed that 27-year-old Kiley Lane had a bad case of the flu. But after the symptoms and her overall condition worsened, Lane was diagnosed with hantavirus. Here's what you should know about the rodent-borne illness.

How prevalent is it?

Hantavirus was first recognized in 1993. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a total of 728 cases of the infection have been reported in the country as of January 2017.

Of the cases, 63 percent of the affected have been male while 37 percent have been female. Experts have not found any evidence to suggest that ethnicity is a factor even though White Americans account for 78 percent of the cases, followed by American Indians who account for 18 percent of cases. The CDC also stated that more than 96 percent of reported cases have occurred in states west of the Mississippi River.

How is it spread?

The disease is said to be carried by rodents like deer mice, white-footed mice, rice rats and cotton rats in the United States. This is why cases of hantavirus infection tend to occur in rural areas where the rodents are more likely to find a suitable habitat.

The most common method of transmission is by breathing in particles from the urine, droppings, or saliva of these animals (containing the virus) which are stirred into the air. People may also become infected if they touch or eat something that has come into contact with the rodents. A rare method of transmission may occur when a rodent with the virus bites someone.

What are the symptoms?

As noted in news reports about Kiley Lane, early diagnosis of this illness can be difficult for everyone, including doctors. Initial symptoms of HPS are very similar to symptoms of flu. This can include fever, headaches, vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal pain. About 4 to 10 days later, the affected person may also experience coughing, shortness of breath, and fluid accumulation in the lungs.

Aside from awareness about hantavirus, knowing whether the person has been exposed to rodents recently can be a vital clue to help diagnose the illness in early stages.

How can it be prevented?

Identifying risk factors is the first step toward taking extra precautions. Those who are at risk of being infected include people who have been hiking, camping, working in pest control, or have cleaned an attic or basement that may be infested with rats. 

In a rodent-infested building, prevention tactics include blocking openings and placing mousetraps. Cleanliness can be maintained by keeping the yard clean and using tight lids to store foods. When cleaning rodent droppings, use rubber gloves. Paper towels and mops are preferred over vacuum cleaning or sweeping as the latter methods may infect the air with the virus particles.

There is no vaccination or a specific course of treatment for hantavirus, though early diagnosis can help recovery. Oxygen therapy is provided as HPS patients typically suffer respiratory distress and shortness of breath.