Hantavirus is a relatively new zoonotic (passing between animals and humans) infectious disease to the United States, prevalent mainly in the southwest. If you’re not familiar with this potentially deadly disease, here’s what you need to know to protect your human and pet family from hantavirus.
What is hantavirus?
Hantaviruses are viruses carried by some rodent species. Hantavirus got its name from the Hantan River in South Korea, near the site where infection first struck Westerners in the 1950s. Hantavirus usually infects rodents without causing any illness. The virus is shed in the feces and urine of infected rodents, where it can infect other animals, including humans.
What animals spread hantavirus?
In North America, hantavirus may be spread in the feces and urine of deer mice, white-footed mice, rice rats and cotton rats. Not all of these rodents carry hantavirus. Because there’s no way to physically determine if a rodent is shedding hantavirus, it’s best to avoid contact with all wild mice and rats and safely clean up all rodent droppings, urine and nests.
What does hantavirus do to infected humans or animals?
Some hantaviruses may cause a rare but often lethal infection in humans called “hantavirus pulmonary syndrome” or HPS. HPS has been documented in all of the United States except Hawaii and Alaska.
How do people contract HPS?
Humans may become infected with hantavirus when they inhale the virus. Campers may unknowingly sleep near rat or mice nests or stir up feces or urine when hiking, aerosolizing the virus and then breathing it in. People may also contract HPS by touching rodent droppings or urine and then rubbing your eyes, mouth or nose. Most cases of HPS are diagnosed during the spring and summer when people are cleaning yards and camping.
What are the symptoms of HPS?
Humans with HPS may not notice any symptoms for one to five weeks after exposure. After a few days, most people complain of difficulty breathing, dizziness, headaches, chills, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. Many people with HPS are initially misdiagnosed with the flu because of the delay in the onset of symptoms from potential exposure.
What’s the treatment and prognosis for HPS?
There is no specific treatment for hantavirus in humans. Humans diagnosed early and placed in intensive care units have a higher survival rate than those who experience delayed treatment. Current estimates reveal about 40% fatality rate of people diagnosed with HPS.
Can people spread hantavirus to each other?
At this time, there have been no documented cases of human-to-human transmission in the United States. There have been reports of person-to-person spread of the milder South American hantavirus variant.
Can dogs or cats get hantavirus or HPS?
Dogs and cats appear to be infected by hantavirus, but show no symptoms. Studies have shown antibodies to hantavirus in both dogs and cats, but no HPS or respiratory infection.
Can I get HPS from my dog or cat?
There is no evidence humans can get hantavirus from dogs or cats. The biggest risk for humans is accidental contact with an infected rodent that a family dog or cat brings into the yard or home. If your pet retrieves a rodent, use protective gloves and dispose the body immediately and safely.
What should I do if I see rat droppings or a nest?
Always wear rubber or plastic gloves whenever coming into contact with rat or mice droppings, cleaning urine spots or cleaning nest debris. Never vacuum or sweep the materials as this could increase the risk of inhalation. Spray the area with household disinfectant or bleach solution (1.5 cups bleach in 1 gallon water) and allow to soak. Carefully place the material in a plastic bag and seal. Discard in a covered trashcan that is regularly emptied or contact your local health department for other ways to dispose of dead rodents, droppings or nests.
Hantavirus and HPS is a very rare infection. The best way to protect your human and pet family is to avoid contact with wild rodents, regularly clean your yard and any buildings nearby and safely dispose of any wastes as soon as possible. If you camp or hike in areas known to harbor wild rodents, take extra safeguards when making camp and use proper hygiene. By following some common sense precautions, chances are you’ll never have to worry about hantavirus in you or your pets.