What is Hantavirus?

Technically termed rodent-borne hemorrhagic fevers, these are zoonotic diseases causing several serious syndromes in humans. They are caused by two groups of RNA viruses; of which only one virus in the genus Hantavirus will be discussed. These zoonotic diseases are worldwide in distribution and the particular disease covered herein was first discovered in the southwest U.S. in 1993. Rodents are primarily responsible for the transmission of the virus and they are generally chronically infected, usually asymptomatic, and shed the virus over long periods of time. Because there are few, if any, clinical signs or lesions of infected rodents, most of this chapter emphasizes human safety concerns.

How Does Hantavirus Affect Me?

In humans, the incubation time for this virus is 1–6 weeks. Early symptoms will include fatigue, fever, muscle aches, headaches, dizziness, chills, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. After 4–10 days following early symptoms, coughing, shortness of breath, tremendous breathing difficulty can appear with the development of pneumonia. Workers who develop symptoms suggestive of disease should immediately seek medical attention. The physician should contact local health authorities promptly if hantavirus-associated illness is suspected. A blood sample should be obtained and forwarded through the state health department to the CDC for hantavirus antibody testing.

This disease normally affects middle-aged adults (mean age of 38 years), but can affect all ages. The fatality rate in the United States is 35%. Biologists should be aware of this disease when handling rodents or when occupying rodent-infested buildings. Caution should be exercised when opening and cleaning previously unused buildings, house cleaning, or entering crawl spaces that are inhabited with mice. Persons involved in any clean-up of rodent-infested structures should wear coveralls (disposable, if possible), rubber boots or disposable shoe covers, rubber or plastic gloves, protective goggles, and an appropriate respiratory protection device, such as a half-mask air-purifying (or negative-pressure) respirator with a 197 high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter or a powered air-purifying respirator (PAPR) with HEPA filters. Personal protective gear should be decontaminated upon removal at the end of the day.
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