In Depth

What is hantavirus?

One man dies from rodent-borne respiratory disease, says Chinese state media

A man who died while on a bus journey in China is reported to have tested positive for hantavirus, prompting the authorities to test 32 of his fellow passengers.

According to the English-language newspaper Global Times, a mouthpiece for the government in Beijing, the man was travelling from the southern province of Yunnan to Shandong on the northeast coast.

What is hantavirus?

According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hantaviruses are “a family of viruses spread mainly by rodents” that “can cause varied disease syndromes in people worldwide”.

Hantaviruses in the Americas are known as “New World” hantaviruses, CDC says, and may cause “hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS)”. 

Other “Old World” hantaviruses are found mostly in Europe and Asia and may cause haemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS).

Hantavirus is fairly rare, with CDC reporting in January 2017 that there had been 728 cases of the infection since surveillance in the US began in 1993.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the last known outbreak was in January 2019, when 29 confirmed cases, including 11 deaths, were reported in Patagonia in southern Argentina.

What is the difference between HPS and HFRS?

HPS is a severe, sometimes fatal, respiratory disease. To date, there are no reported cases of HPS in the US in which the virus was transmitted from one person to another.

In Chile and Argentina, rare cases of person-to-person transmission have occurred among close contacts of a person who was ill with a specific type of hantavirus.

HFRS is actually the name of a group of clinically similar illnesses caused by hantaviruses. The viruses that cause these illnesses are called Hantaan, Dobrava, Saaremaa, Seoul and Puumala.

According to CDC, Haantan virus is distributed in eastern Asia, particularly in China, Russia and Korea. Puumala virus, meanwhile, is found in Scandinavia, western Europe and western Russia. 

Dobrava virus is found primarily in the Balkans, and Seoul virus is found worldwide. Saaremaa is found in central Europe and Scandinavia.

How is hantavirus spread?

Hantaviruses are carried and transmitted by rodents. 

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), transmission of the virus to humans occurs through the inhalation of infected rodent urine, droppings or saliva.

There is no curative treatment for hantavirus infection, ECDC says, and eliminating or minimising contact with rodents is the best way to prevent infection.

Occupations such as forestry workers and farmers, where workers may come into contact with rodents, have an increased, though still small, risk of exposure.

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What are the symptoms?

According to the American Lung Association (ALA), symptoms include:

  • Fever greater than 38.3 degrees celsius 
  • Chills, body aches and/or headaches
  • Nausea and vomiting and abdominal pain
  • A dry cough followed by rapid onset of breathing difficulty

“Diagnosing [hantavirus] can be challenging because early symptoms mimic the flu,” the ALA notes. Some of the symptoms are also similar to Covid-19.

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