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What is a Hantavirus?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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A hantavirus is a member of a viral genus first identified around the Hatan River in Korea and classified in the family Bunyaviridae. Members of this genus have been linked with two different diseases and treatment for both is focused on supportive care. These viruses are carried and passed by rodents. Attempts at limiting the spread of hantavirus are focused on controlling rodent populations to prevent viral exposure.

The original virus is responsible for causing a hemorrhagic fever that will eventually involve the kidneys, potentially sending the patient into renal failure. It was once known as Korean hemorrhagic fever, although “hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome” is the preferred modern term. The virus incubates for several weeks before causing a cascading series of symptoms. Provided with supportive care through the infection, the patient may survive.

In the 1990s, another form of the virus was identified in the Southwest, after a rash of severe pulmonary disease swept through the Native American community, killing young, healthy individuals with no prior history of medical problems. The cardiopulmonary version of hantavirus causes issues like pulmonary edema and tachycardia, where the heart beats too rapidly. Patients may require mechanical ventilation while the body fights the virus in some cases.

People contract the virus by inhaling aerosolized rodent urine and feces, or by consuming food and water contaminated with rodent waste. Symptoms of hantavirus are often compared to those of flu. Patients can develop headaches and fatigue and may experience nausea and vomiting. Anemia can develop in some patients and lung involvement may make it difficult to breathe. Supportive care can include keeping patients warm and providing fluids.

Researchers interested in hantavirus are working on tasks like sequencing the viral genome for the purpose of learning more about where it originated and how it evolved. This information can be used in the development of antiviral drugs to target hantavirus infection. Study of rodent populations where the virus appears naturally without causing disease is also a topic of interest, as is the development of adequate controls to minimize contact between rodents and humans. Prairie dogs and mice have both been linked with this virus, and it can exist for extended periods of time in nature as long as it has a reservoir of natural hosts. It can also last up to three days outside the body, making sterilization of environments where the virus has been identified an important issue.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon972764 — On Oct 06, 2014

What evidence is there for prairie dogs carrying hantavirus? I have not been able to locate even one scientific article to support this claim. Several species of mice do for sure.

By irontoenail — On Dec 04, 2013

@Iluviaporos - Well, there are some antiviral drugs but they tend to be specific and only help with particular viruses. I don't know if they will ever come up with a drug that will take care of a majority of viruses because the way they work is different from bacteria. Bacteria generally are self contained, while viruses actually invade your cells in order to reproduce.

The only good thing about hantavirus symptoms is it sounds like you can treat them until the body manages to fight off the infection on its own, and I'd imagine once you develop those antibodies you don't have to worry about being infected again.

They might still be able to find medications or other treatments that are specific for this kind of virus, but I don't know if they'll ever find a cure-all for viruses in general. The only thing that comes close is the immune system and even that can only do so much.

By lluviaporos — On Dec 03, 2013

@indigomoth - Well, to be honest it might be more efficient if money was spent on making sure there were no rats and mice to spread the disease among people in the first place.

Although any money spent towards researching how to overcome viruses is a good thing. If we ever discover an antibiotic equivalent for killing viruses a lot of diseases will be overcome in one instant.

By indigomoth — On Dec 03, 2013

Unfortunately, it sounds like this is a poverty-linked disease, which is why it hasn't been cured yet. That might sound cynical, but it's the way the pharmaceutical companies work. They want to make a profit and there is very little profit in spending millions on research to cure a disease that only poor people will contract, since poor people can't afford to spend thousands on medication.

I mean, it's definitely possible for hantaviruses to show up in people who aren't stricken with poverty, especially in urban areas where rats and mice are more common, but if poodles could spread this disease I suspect that there would be a cure already.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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