Hantaviruses

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Guidance for Personnel Working with Wild Rodents at Texas A&M University-Kingsville

What is Hantavirus?

Hantavirus causes Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS). HPS has been recognized as a disease only very recently in North America. So far, it’s also fairly uncommon and the chances of becoming infected are low. However, HPS is potentially deadly and immediate intensive care is essential once symptoms appear. Since first detected in 1993 in Four Corners (an area shared by New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah), HPS has been found in over half of the states in the US. Hantaviruses that cause HPS are carried by rodents, especially the deer mouse.

How is Hantavirus spread?

Rodents shed the virus in their urine, droppings, and saliva. The virus is primarily transmitted to people through the inhalation route, e.g., when they breathe in air contaminated with the virus. This happens when fresh rodent urine, droppings, or nesting materials are stirred up (aerosolization). There are several other ways rodents may spread Hantavirus to people:

  • Percutaneous transmission: If a hantavirus-infected rodent bites a victim, the virus may be spread but this is very rare.
  • Hand to mouth transmission: If you touched something that had been contaminated with rodent urine, droppings, or saliva, and then you touched your nose or mouth.
  • Ingestion: The accidental consumption of food that is infected with rodent urine, droppings, or saliva

The types of Hantavirus that cause HPS in the US cannot be transmitted from one person to another. There is also no known transmission from other animals or insects.

Who is at risk for infection?

Anyone who comes into contact with wild rodent droppings, urine, or nesting materials is at risk for infection. You may be at risk if your activities or occupation require that you directly handle rodents or their droppings or bedding.

Is Hantavirus infection serious?

HPS infections are potentially deadly and immediate intensive care is essential once symptoms appear.

How can I protect myself?

  • Practice good personal hygiene at all times. Wash your hands with soap and water or with a disinfectant wipe after working with animals.
  • Workers in potentially high-risk settings, such as rural field research, should receive a thorough orientation about Hantavirus transmission and the symptoms of the disease.
  • Workers who develop febrile or respiratory illness within 45 days of potential exposure should immediately seek medical attention.
  • Hantaviruses are susceptible to most disinfectants dilute hypochlorite solutions (bleach), 70% ethanol, detergents, phenolics, or most general household disinfectants.
  • Workers should wear rubber, plastic, or latex gloves when handling rodents, cages, or traps contaminated by rodents or whenever the worker has broken skin. Before removing the gloves, wash gloved hands in a disinfectant and then in soap and water. Thoroughly wash hands with soap and water after removing gloves. If this is not possible, then rinse gloves with water or use a disinfectant wipe; wash hands thoroughly at the end of the work period.
  • Workers may need to wear respirators when handling field-caught rodents or contaminated traps or cages or when disturbing rodent burrows and nests. Until the infectivity of Hantavirus is better understood, respirators should be used to minimize exposure to airborne particles of rodent excreta during procedures that generate aerosols. The proper use of respirators will provide protection against airborne particles; however, the incorrect use or care of respirators may increase, rather than decrease, the risk of exposure to harmful agents. If respirators can not be maintained in a sanitary condition, their use is not advised.
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What are the signs of Hantavirus infection?

The length of the incubation period is not clear; however, it appears to be between one and five weeks. Early symptoms include fatigue, fever, and muscle aches, especially the large muscle groups; thighs, hips, back, sometimes shoulders. These symptoms are universal. There may also be headache, dizziness, chills, and/or abdominal problems, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. About half of all HPS patients experience these symptoms. Four to ten days after these early symptoms, patients usually develop coughing ad shortness of breath, as the lungs fill with fluid.

 What do I do if an exposure or injury occurs?

Exposure to aerosols, bites or scratches involving animals or injuries from objects contaminated with body fluids from animals require immediate first aid and medical attention. Notify your supervisor! Then, contact the University Police Department at 593-2611 or dial 911.

This page was last updated on: October 9, 2015