A recent outbreak of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome has many people wondering about this mostly unheard-of disease. Though potentially life-threatening, there are some treatment and prevention methods available for hantavirus pulmonary syndrome.
Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS) is a severe respiratory disease. It is caused by an infection with a hantavirus, which can occur whenever coming into contact with a rodent carrying the virus. There has never been a case in the U.S. of HPS spreading from one person to another. The disease is characterized by flu-like symptoms and can be potentially fatal in certain cases.
HPS is a disease that occurs in two stages. The first stage includes symptoms such as:
Due to the similarity of these symptoms to those of the flu, pneumonia and other viral conditions, HPS is often difficult to detect during the first stage.
Second-stage symptoms, which develop after three to seven days, typically include:
- Coughing, sometimes producing secretions
- Fluid accumulating in the lungs
- Shortness of breath
- Low blood pressure
- Reduced heart efficiency
Causes And Risk Factors
Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome is transmitted through a rodent carrier, which in North America is almost always the deer mouse. Other possible carriers include the cotton rat, rice rat and white-footed mouse. A person doesn’t have to come into contact with the rodent to get the virus. In fact, the main route of transmission is inhalation. The virus is spread through the “aerosolization” of an infected rodent’s droppings, urine or saliva. Anytime these materials are stirred up, tiny droplets containing the virus get into the air.
The risk for HPS obviously increases when a person is around rodents carrying the virus. Rodent infestation in the home is considered a primary risk for the disease. People who work in crawl spaces, under houses or in vacant buildings (or who are cleaning any of these spaces) are at a higher risk for HPS. Campers and hikers are also at an increased risk for HPS if they visit trail shelters or camps with infected rodents.
There are several methods you can use to help prevent HPS. Most of these methods involve preventing rodent infestation – a primary risk for HPS. Use these tips to reduce the risk of rodent infestation in your home or workplace:
- Set spring-loaded traps near the baseboards. Be careful about using poison traps if you have pets or children.
- Clear brush, grass and trash (all of which can be used as nesting materials) away from the foundation.
- Seal any holes with metal flashing, cement or wire screening – mice can squeeze through holes as small as a quarter-inch wide.
- Don’t leave out dirty dishes or food. Use rodent-proof containers and garbage cans with tight-fitting lids.
In addition to preventing rodent infestation, it’s important to practice safe cleaning methods. If you find a dead rodent or an area where a rodent has been, first wet it with alcohol, bleach or household disinfectants. Then, use a damp towel to pick up the contaminated material or wipe the surface clean. This prevents dust from being stirred up into the air and inhaled. If you’re cleaning a building with a rodent infestation, wear a respirator.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPS has a mortality rate of 38 percent. Because of this, HPS needs to be taken very seriously and treated as soon as possible. While there aren’t any specific treatments for HPS, many people can recover from the disease with early recognition, immediate hospitalization and breathing support. Those with severe cases are usually placed in an intensive care unit. Some methods used to help patients with HPS recover include:
- Assisted respiration: This can be achieved through mechanical ventilation or intubation and helps prevent pulmonary edema.
- Blood oxygenation: This involves pumping the blood through a machine that removes carbon dioxide and adds oxygen.
In August 2012, the public became aware of an outbreak of HPS that occurred in Yosemite National Park. As of August 28, 2012, the virus had affected four individuals who had stayed in the park’s Curry Village “Signature Tent Cabins” sometime during June 2012. Of the four cases confirmed, two individuals had died from the disease. Park officials warned that anyone who stayed in Curry Village’s tent cabins from mid-June through the end of August should seek medical attention immediately if they developed any flu-like symptoms.
Always take steps to avoid rodent infestation in your home in order to prevent hantavirus pulmonary syndrome. Because HPS can be fatal, it’s important to seek treatment as early as possible. If you develop any flu-like symptoms after being around rodents or rodent droppings, seek medical attention.