They may be rare but hantavirus infections can be deadly. Here’s how to spot the symptoms and lower your risk of exposure.
The recent death of a 9-year-old boy in New Mexico has raised concerns about hantavirus — a rare but frequently deadly infection spread through secretions of deer mice.
Fernando Hernandez of Bloomfield, New Mexico, succumbed to the illness at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital nine months after his initial diagnosis.
Symptoms of hantavirus — or more specifically Sin Nombre virus, the strain of hantavirus found in the United States — can often appear benign at onset and are often described as flu-like. Involving muscle aches, fever, and fatigue, the disease can rapidly progress to dangerous infection of the lungs called hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS).
The first stages of HPS typically appear as shortness of breath and cough and typically occur within two weeks of infection but can appear as late as six weeks.
In later stages, the lungs actually begin to fill with fluid, a condition known as pulmonary edema, leading to severe breathing difficulties and increased stress on the cardiovascular system.
“What that really is is a viral pneumonia that can essentially expand to involve basically the rest of the body. Patients can become critically ill very quickly if they become infected with hantavirus,” Dr. Charles Chiu, an infectious disease specialist at University of California, San Francisco, told Healthline. “It can actually progress to respiratory failure where you would have to be supported by a mechanical ventilator.”
Such was the case of Fernando Hernandez.
Chiu stressed that the disease is rare but needs to be taken very seriously.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 728 cases of HPS have been reported in the United States since its discovery in the southwestern United States in 1993.
Hantavirus has been reported in 36 states, although the majority of cases have been in areas where deer mice are common, including western states such as New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and California.
More than one-third of those who contract HPS, 36 percent, die from it.
In New Mexico, the mortality rate climbs closer to 50 percent.
“What makes the disease very worrisome is that there is no treatment for the disease. There is no direct antiviral drug and there’s no vaccine for this disease,” said Chiu.
However, it’s often treatable in a hospital intensive care unit through the use of breathing and oxygen supportive therapy.
“It’s really important that you seek medical attention quickly,” Chiu stressed.
But hantavirus can be difficult to diagnose. There isn’t a way to test for it rapidly that’s yet widely available. Therefore, presenting a full history to a doctor to account for the context of the illness is essential.
Hantavirus is primarily found in rural areas, spread through the urine and droppings of deer mice, although other rodents capable of spreading it also include the white-footed mouse and the hispid cotton rat.
Chiu advises those who have a history of exposure, have recently been camping or spent time in an enclosed space such as a summer cabin, or have a history of going hiking in the woods to keep a watchful eye on potential symptoms that may occur.
Rural and outdoor exposures can put you at potential risk of hantavirus infection.
Samuel T. Smallidge, a wildlife specialist at New Mexico State University, further suggests a few simple steps everyone can take to stay safe.
“If you are entering into a confined space, for example a shed or an outbuilding or a barn, the recommendation is to open all doors and windows and walk away and leave it for at least 30 minutes,” he told Healthline. “What that allows to happen is the finest particulate matter in that space that’s closed up will have an opportunity to be disturbed by the breeze.”
Additionally, particularly for those living in areas where deer mice are common, he suggests the following three steps: clean it up, seal it up, and trap it out.
Clean up and disinfect any known areas of infestation using a wet cleaning method and an antiviral cleaning agent. Don’t use a broom or vacuum as this can propel particulate matter into the air. Wearing a facial covering or breathing mask is also recommended.
Seal up any known holes or gaps in a building’s foundation or structure to prevent reinfestation.
Finally, trap and remove any remaining mice in the building.
“The best way to combat this disease is to prevent it from happening in the first place,” said Chiu.