Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome is a lung disease caused by a virus carried by rodents, especially deer mice.
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What Is Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome?
Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HAN-ta-vi-rus PUL-mo-nar-ee SIN-drome), or HPS for short, is an uncommon but deadly lung disease. It is caused by a type of virus known as hantavirus, which is carried by rodents * , especially deer mice.
The disease was first identified in 1993, when an outbreak occurred in the geographic area shared by New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah, known as the Four Corners. Several healthy young adults there suddenly came down with serious breathing problems. About half soon died. Scientists traced the mystery illness to the Sin Nombre virus, a type of hantavirus carried by deer mice. It turns out that there were large numbers of deer mice in the Four Corners area that year due to heavy spring rains.
Since 1993, HPS has been found in more than half of states in the United States, especially in the west. Over 200 cases of HPS had been reported in the United States by mid-1999.
How Do People Catch HPS?
Certain rodents shed hantavirus in their urine, droppings, and saliva. These rodents include deer mice, cotton rats, rice rats, and white-footed mice, but not common house mice. When the rodent urine, droppings, or nesting materials are stirred up, tiny droplets of virus can get into the air, where people can breathe them.
* rodents are small, gnawing mammals with large, chisel-shaped front teeth. They include rats, mice, and squirrels. Rodents carry a number of infectious diseases that affect humans.
The U.S. and the World
- There are at least 14 kinds of hantavirus. This family of viruses is named for the Hantaan River in Korea.
- In North and South America, certain types of hantavirus cause hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS).
- In Asia and Europe, other types cause a disease known as hemorrhagic (hem-mo-RAJ-ik) fever with renal (REE-nal) syndrome (HFRS).
- About 150,000 to 200,000 people are hospitalized with HFRS each year worldwide.
- More than half of all cases of HFRS occur in China.
- Russia and Korea also have hundreds to thousands of cases each year.
- In addition, hundreds of cases each year are found in Japan, Sweden, Finland, Bulgaria, Greece, Hungary, France, and the Balkan countries formerly making up Yugoslavia.
Anyone of any age or sex can catch HPS. Activities that put people at risk include opening cabins and sheds that have been closed for the winter, cleaning homes and barns, using trail shelters when hiking and camping, and working in crawl spaces under buildings.
What Happens When People Get HPS?
The first symptoms of HPS show up one to five weeks after a person comes into contact with hantavirus. They include tiredness, fever, and muscle aches. People may have headache, dizziness, chills, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, or stomach pain. Four to 10 days later, they start coughing and become short of breath as the lungs fill with fluid.
A blood test can quickly show if someone is infected with hantavirus. However, similar symptoms also occur with more common diseases. For this reason, doctors might not suspect HPS unless they know of an outbreak in the area.
People with HPS need intensive medical care. The sooner they get help, the better. In the hospital, people receive oxygen therapy to help them breathe more easily. The hospital staff also keeps a close watch for problems that may arise with fluid levels and blood pressure, so that such problems can be treated promptly.
The best way to prevent HPS is to make sure that homes, workplaces, and campsites are not attractive to rodents. Guidelines include:
- Keeping a clean home where food is not easy for rodents to find.
- Putting a tight-fitting lid on the garbage can.
- Throwing away uneaten pet food at the end of each day.
- Sealing any entry holes in the walls.
- Clearing brush and junk from around the base of the house to get rid of nesting materials.
- Avoiding contact with rodents when camping or hiking.
- Not disturbing or camping near rodent burrows.
Hemorrhagic Fever with Renal Syndrome (HFRS)
Hemorrhagic (hem-mo-RAJ-ik) fever with renal (REE-nal) syndrome (HFRS) is similar to hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS) but occurs more often in Asia and Europe.
HFRS symptoms range from mild to severe. The severe form starts with a sudden, intense headache, backache, fever, and chills. Within days, people may develop tiny purple spots on their skin and bloodshot eyes, both signs of tiny leaks in their blood vessels. As the bleeding inside the body gets worse, the person may have a sudden, dangerous drop in blood pressure. This can lead to physical collapse and even death.
Approximately 5 to 10 percent of severe cases of HFRS will be fatal. As the blood pressure returns to normal, the person may develop life-threatening kidney problems. Complete recovery from severe HFRS can take weeks or months.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1600 Clifton Road N.E.,
Atlanta, GA 30333. The website for this U.S. government agency has a
section titled "All About Hantavirus."