The death of a young Navajo man in 1993 alerted Americans to the risk of hantavirus infection. Since that time, cases have been reported in 32 states.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website has reported that the primary source of infection is airborne transmission of virus particles shed by infected rodents in their urine, feces, and saliva.
There are many varieties of hantavirus. Those found in the United States are most likely to cause hantavirus pulmonary syndrome. This is a serious lung infection with a mortality rate of up to 38 percent.
Early symptoms include fatigue, fever, muscle aches, headaches, dizziness, chills, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. Late symptoms include coughing and shortness of breath, as the lungs fill with fluid.
Diagnosis is difficult, because the early symptoms resemble the flu. Exposure to rodents or their nesting areas, especially in rural environments, increases the chance that the symptoms are caused by hantavirus.
In the United States, the deer mouse, white-footed mouse, cotton rat, and rice rat are the primary carriers.
“There is no specific treatment, cure, or vaccine for hantavirus infection,” the CDC site reported. However, supportive care in the hospital can improve the prognosis. Many patients will need a breathing tube in an intensive care unit.
Through December 15, 2010, a total of 560 cases of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome were reported to the CDC. The infection is spreading more rapidly in some parts of Europe and Asia.
Detlev H. Kruger of University Medicine Charite in Berlin, Germany, and colleagues provided a review. In Germany, 2,000 cases of hantavirus infection were reported for the single year of 2010.
Kruger listed 28 known varieties of hantavirus worldwide. The varieties common in Europe and Asia cause hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome.
“Usually, a particular hantavirus is transmitted only by one or few closely related rodent/insectivore species,” Detlev reported.
The natural habitat of the rodent or other animal carrier limits the geographic distribution of the hantavirus variety.
Hantavirus is generally not contagious.