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A man in China's Yunnan Province who died in late March tested positive for hantavirus, prompting Chinese authorities to test 32 people who shared a bus with the man.
This has provoked new interest in hantavirus, along with concerns of outbreak in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
What Is Hantavirus?
Although it typically cannot spread from person to person, hantavirus cases can be deadly serious. According to the CDC, hantavirus infections have a mortality rate of about 38%.
Fortunately, they are also rare.
According to Dr. Davis, only about 800 people in the US have ever been affected by hantavirus as of 2017.
In China, hantavirus infections are more common than in the US, but still rare. Virologist and hantavirus specialist Colleen B. Jonsson, PhD, writes that newly identified hantaviruses have shown that about 75,000 people in China come down with serious hantavirus complications every year. This qualifies under the NIH's definition as a rare disease.
Is a Hantavirus Pandemic Possible?
Unlike COVID-19, the hantavirus cannot spread from person to person. This makes it very difficult to spread the virus far from the point of an original infection.
Instead of human spread, rodents are the main culprits in these cases, explains MedicineNet medical author Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD.
"Hantaviruses live their lifecycle in rodents but apparently do no harm; the viruses multiply and shed in the rodent's urine, feces, and saliva," he said.
There have possibly been a few rare exceptions to this rule in South America. Dr. Davis said there have been "a rare few patients who investigators considered to have exhibited person-to-person transfer with a type of hanta virus termed Andes virus."
How Else Is Hantavirus Different in the US and China?
Hantavirus types differ in different regions of the world. Dr. Davis said these RNA-containing viruses cause different serious symptoms in the Americas as compared to the rest of the world. Hantavirus outbreaks in the US cause different serious symptoms from those in Europe and Asia.
In the Americas, serious hantavirus infections usually take the form of HPS, a severe respiratory infection.
"HPS is found mainly in the Americas (Canada, U.S., Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Panama, and others)," Dr. Davis said.
However, in Russia, China, Korea, Western Europe and elsewhere, serious infections develop into HFRS (hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome), he said.
"The main difference is that the predominant symptoms in the late stages of disease vary somewhat between the two diseases (lung fluid and shortness of breath in HPS and low blood pressure, fever, and kidney failure in HFRS)," Davis said. "The vast majority of HPS and HFRS infections do not transfer from person to person."
Is There a Hantavirus Treatment or Vaccine?
"At this time, there is no definitive treatment for HPS, other than early recognition of HPS and subsequent medical support," Dr. Davis said. "There is no vaccine available to protect against any hantaviruses to date."
How to Prevent Hantavirus
Because there is no vaccine, the best way to prevent hantavirus is to avoid close contact with rodents, said Dr. Davis.
He recommends sealing up gaps and holes, placing traps, and keeping areas as clean and food-free as possible.
One common cleaning chore should be avoided, though.
"Do not attempt to use a vacuum or use a broom to remove rodent urine or feces; this action may increase the risk of HPS by generating an aerosol," David warned. "The risk of HPS can be reduced by inactivating hantaviruses in the environment by using a household detergent and 1.5 cups of bleach per gallon of water to wipe or spray the potentially infected area and while minimizing contact by wearing gloves and a mask. Take similar precautions with rodents caught in traps."