Hantaviruses are rare viruses that normally infect rodents. They do not cause disease in the host but are fatal to human beings. Hantavirus infections are illnesses caused by the virus when it passes from rodents to people. The virus infects people when they come in contact with infected rodents, or their droppings and other fluids. There is also a high chance of infection when a person breathes in air infected by rodents carrying the virus. Rodent bites and eating food contaminated with their droppings have also been known as possible ways for the virus to enter the human body.
How hantavirus infection affects the human body
Once the virus enters the body, it follows the bloodstream and quickly attacks and reduces the function of the heart, lungs and kidneys. It also continues to spread throughout the body by means of the bloodstream, replicating and causing serious damage to vital organs.
The viruses, based on their types, cause two main groups of diseases. A type of hantaviruses called Old World Hantaviruses causes a disease called Haemorrhagic Fever with Renal Syndrome (HFRS). The second group known as New World Hantaviruses causes Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS), which affects the respiratory system and has a fatality rate of 38 to 50 percent.
Symptoms of hantavirus infections
The incubation of the virus may take anywhere from one to eight weeks; normally, the symptoms start two to three weeks after exposure to infected rodents or their droppings and fluids.
Symptoms of hantavirus infection include fever, headaches, chills, dizziness, fatigue and muscle aches, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or abdominal pain. The infected person may develop severely impaired renal function in HFRS, and in HPS swiftly develop severe respiratory failure coupled with shock. HPS is also characterized by breathing problems, coughing and fluid buildup in the lungs; if HPS is not immediately treated at the onset of the early symptoms and is allowed to progress to the severe breathing problem stage, the patient may die within hours or after one or two days after the breathing problems start.
Treatment of hantavirus infection
Specific treatment, cure or vaccines for hantavirus infection have not been developed. Patients are treated based on the effects of the virus on the vital organs. Treatment usually involves management to stop the progress of the symptoms and providing relief to breathing problems.
If an infected person seeks medical help early, there is a good chance of survival. Recovery is also usually swift, and hospitalization is normally required for about a week only.
There is no danger in treating or helping a person with suspected infection: transmission of the disease from human to human has not been recorded.
Prevention of hantavirus infection
Rodent control in and around the human habitat is the best method of preventing the infection. Special care should be taken to make sure that there are no food sources and hiding or nesting places for rodents in and around the house. Be careful with rodents and do not touch live or dead rodents with bare hands. Take care while cleaning, trekking or camping to not touch droppings and other waste of rodents. In areas of high rodent population, closed shelters should not be used before cleaning, airing and disinfecting them.
Like always, awareness about the disease and what to do in case of an infection can save precious lives. As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure, and the most important thing to do after prevention would no doubt be seeking medical help quickly in case of infection.