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March 25, 2020, 10:38 a.m. EDT

Hantavirus is one illness you don’t need to worry about right now — as long as you avoid contact with rodents

A man reportedly died of the hantavirus in China. Here’s what it is and what you need to know.

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By Nicole Lyn Pesce


designer491/iStock
Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) is spread by rodents, and very rarely from person-to-person.

No, the world is not about to get hit with a hantavirus pandemic, too.

A man in China has reportedly died from the hantavirus, which is one of a family of viruses spread by rodents that can cause disease in humans. The man from Yunnan Province in southwest China was traveling east by bus to Shadong Province, and the 32 other people on board are also being tested for hantavirus, according to the state-run Global Times newspaper as reported by Newsweek on Tuesday.

This news has led some on social media to start panicking that another viral pandemic is ready to make the rounds, even as the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 has infected at least 387,382 people across the globe, and killed 16,767 and counting. (About 101,987 people have recovered, as well.) Hantavirus quickly topped the trending topics on Twitter /zigman2/quotes/203180645/composite TWTR -0.62% , and Google /zigman2/quotes/202934861/composite AAPL +3.03%   searches for “hantavirus” also started climbing in the U.S. early Tuesday morning.

Dr. Tania Elliott from NYU Langone Health in Manhattan told MarketWatch that hantavirus has actually been around for a long time, “probably for centuries,” and that it is most prevalent in China with anywhere from 16,000 to 100,000 cases a year.

But unlike the coronavirus — which is believed to spread from person to person through droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes — the hantavirus is primarily spread by contact with mice and their urine, feces or saliva. In fact, the CDC notes that, to date, “no cases of HPS (hantavirus pulmonary syndrome) have been reported in the United States in which the virus was transmitted from one person to another.” So avoiding the hantavirus basically comes down to avoiding contact with rodents, Dr. Elliott said.

Here’s what you need to know about hantavirus, as outlined by the CDC .

What is the hantavirus?

This family of diseases is spread mainly by rodents — particularly the deer mouse in the U.S. — and can cause different diseases in people around the world. Each hantavirus has a specific rodent host species. Hantaviruses in the Americas are known as “New World” hantaviruses, and can cause hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS), with symptoms including fatigue, fever and muscle ache in early stages, and coughing and shortness of breath later on. Other hantaviruses, known as “Old World” hantaviruses, are mostly seen in Europe and Asia, and can cause hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS), with symptoms including intense headaches, back and abdominal pain, fever, chills, nausea and blurred vision. Both diseases are considered rare, but can be fatal.

How do people get infected with hantavirus?

The CDC notes that human hantavirus infections tend to happen sporadically, and most often in rural areas with forests, fields and farms that are appealing habitats for these rodent hosts — particularly the deer mouse in the U.S., although the cotton mouse, rice rat and white-footed mouse have also been known to carry hantaviruses.

The rodents shed the virus in their saliva, urine and feces, and people most commonly contract it by breathing in tiny droplets containing the virus that get stirred up into the air when fresh rodent urine, droppings or nesting materials are stirred up. This can happen while cleaning in and around your home, if you have rodents living there, too. Opening or cleaning sheds and previously unused buildings, particularly in rural settings, could also expose people to infected rodent droppings. Construction, utility and pest control workers can also come into contact with it while working in crawl spaces or buildings that may be infested with mice. And hikers and campers may be exposed when camping or sheltering in rodent habitats.

Researchers also believe that people can contract the hantavirus if they touch something that has been contaminated with rodent urine, droppings, or saliva, and then touch their nose or mouth. [Keep up that handwashing.] They suspect people can become sick if they eat food contaminated by urine, droppings or saliva from an infected rodent, as well. And in rare cases, the virus can be spread if a rodent carrying the virus bites someone.

Note: The CDC states that the hantaviruses that cause human illness in the United States cannot be transmitted from one person to another, such as from touching or kissing a person with it, or from a health care worker who treated someone with it. Only Chile and Argentina have seen a couple of rare cases of person-to-person transmission among close contacts of a person sick with the Andes Virus hantavirus.

How are people treated? Is there a vaccine?

The CDC notes there is no specific treatment, cure or vaccine for hantavirus infection. The earlier infected individuals are recognized and brought in to intensive care, the better. In intensive care, patients are intubated and given oxygen therapy to help them through any severe respiratory distress. Those with HFRS (hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome) may also be hooked up to IVs to manage their fluids and electrolytes, and require dialysis in extreme cases. So the health body recommends that “if you have been around rodents and have symptoms of fever, deep muscle aches and severe shortness of breath, see your doctor immediately.”

How dangerous is it?

Developing HPS (hantavirus pulmonary syndrome) and HFRS (hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome) can be fatal. HPS has a mortality rate of 38%. Depending upon which virus is causing the HFRS, death occurs in less than 1% to as many as 15% of patients. But both of these are also pretty rare, and while some patients have long recovery times of weeks or months, many patients make a full recovery without lasting complications.

Who is most at risk of hantavirus?

Anyone, healthy or not, who comes into contact with rodents carrying hantavirus is at risk of developing hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS), unfortunately. Those living with a rodent infestation are those most at risk, the CDC says, and any activity that puts you in contact with rodent droppings, urine, saliva or nesting materials increases your chances of infection. In the U.S., people in rural settings were more likely to come in contact with the virus, such as a 2012 outbreak that involved 10 cases in people who had recently visited Yosemite National Park, or a 2017 outbreak of a hantavirus in 17 people in 11 states, which included Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah and Wisconsin.

How can I prevent hantavirus, or minimize my risk?

The best thing you can do is eliminate contact with rodents at home, at work or at your campsite as much as you can. At home, seal up any holes or gaps in your house, apartment or garage that could let rodents in. Place traps in and around your home to combat any rodent infestation. And seal and clean up easy-to-get food. Sanitation is key.

You need to take precautions before cleaning up a space that could be the site of a rodent infestation, however. First, ventilate it by opening up door and windows for at least 30 minutes. Make sure you wear rubber, latex or vinyl gloves. Then do not stir up dust by sweeping or vacuuming up droppings or nesting materials; rather, spray the area with a disinfectant, or a mixture of bleach and water, and let it soak for five minutes. Use a paper towel to pick up the urine and droppings, and dispose of the waste in the garbage. Finally, disinfect items that might have been contaminated by rodents or their urine and droppings. Get more tips for safely cleaning up after rodents here .

And for more information, visit the CDC’s page on hantaviruses.

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