What Is Hantavirus and Should We Be Worried About a New Pandemic?

Here are the facts about #hantavirus.

One of the most searched terms on the Internet right now is "hantavirus." This comes in the wake of reports out of China that a man who died on a bus Monday tested positive for something called hantavirus. Global Times, an English-language Chinese news outlet, tweeted, "He was tested positive for #hantavirus. Other 32 people on bus were tested." The tweet has now been shared more than 15,000 times.

This immediately sparked rumors of a new pandemic poised to sweep the world before we even have a chance to get the coronavirus (COVID-19) under control, and #hantavirus soon began trending on Twitter. Luckily, there is accurate information out there about hantavirus. Here's what you need to know.

What is a Hantavirus?

By this time, everyone knows that the novel coronavirus that has caused international turmoil since originating in Wuhan, China, jumped from an animal host to humans. A coronavirus is any virus that originated in animals. Similarly, hantaviruses are a family of virus that spread through rodents. But there are key differences: According to the CDC, hantaviruses spread to humans as a result of close contact with rodent urine, droppings, or saliva, and scientists and doctors have been aware of them since the 1950s. According to the CDC, "Hantaviruses in the Americas are known as 'New World' hantaviruses and may cause hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS). Other hantaviruses, known as 'Old World' hantaviruses, are found mostly in Europe and Asia and may cause hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS)."

The CDC goes on to specify, "The hantaviruses that cause human illness in the United States cannot be transmitted from one person to another." Not only that, but hantavirus infections are exceedingly rare.

What are the Symptoms of Hantavirus?

Symptoms of HPS include,"Fatigue, fever and muscle aches, especially in the large muscle groups—thighs, hips, back, and sometimes shoulders. These symptoms are universal. There may also be headaches, dizziness, chills, and abdominal problems, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain. About half of all HPS patients experience these symptoms."

The CDC informational page on the virus goes on to say, "Four to 10 days after the initial phase of illness, the late symptoms of HPS appear. These include coughing and shortness of breath, with the sensation of, as one survivor put it, a '…tight band around my chest and a pillow over my face' as the lungs fill with fluid."

In contrast, HFRS is characterized by, "Symptoms [that] begin suddenly and include intense headaches, back and abdominal pain, fever, chills, nausea, and blurred vision. Individuals may have flushing of the face, inflammation or redness of the eyes, or a rash. Later symptoms can include low blood pressure, acute shock, vascular leakage, and acute kidney failure, which can cause severe fluid overload."

Is the Disease Fatal?

HFRS has a fatality rate of 5-15% while HPS has a fatality rate of 38%.

Could Hantavirus Turn Into a Pandemic Like Coronavirus?

The answer is, simply, almost definitely not. Human to human transmission of hantavirus is exceedingly rare, particularly in the United States where it is unheard of. In fact, the CDC specifies, "To date, no cases of HPS have been reported in the United States in which the virus was transmitted from one person to another." Meanwhile, it is possible for HFRS to be transmitted from person to person, but it is extremely rare and unlikely. So much so that it is essentially impossible for the virus to travel between people at such a rate as to cause a global pandemic.

How Can I Avoid Getting Hantavirus?

According to the CDC, to get infected with HFRS, one must be exposed to, "Aerosolized urine, droppings, or saliva of infected rodents or after exposure to dust from their nests. Transmission may also occur when infected urine or these other materials are directly introduced into broken skin or onto the mucous membranes of the eyes, nose, or mouth. In addition, individuals who work with live rodents can be exposed to hantaviruses through rodent bites from infected animals." Transmission of HFRS from one person to another is extremely rare.

Meanwhile, if you live in the United States, you have even less to worry about as HPS cannot be passed between humans. The majority of cases of HPS in the USA are caused by deer mice (with some cases caused by cotton rats, and rice rats in the southeastern states, and the white-footed mouse in the Northeast). The virus can be contracted through the air when fresh rodent urine, droppings, or nesting materials are disturbed or otherwise stirred up, which can cause tiny droplets containing the virus to become airborne. It can also, more rarely, be contracted through rodent bites, food contaminated by rodent waste or saliva, and possibly by touching something contaminated and then touching your face. But just because you may have come in contact with a rodent nest does not mean you will contract the virus, as HPS infections are still very rare and not all rodents carry the virus.

Should I Worry About Hantavirus?

No, unless you're someone who frequently consumes or comes in contact with the kinds of rodents who may carry the virus, you have nothing to worry about. Even if you think you may have come into contact with a rodent nest recently, it is unlikely that you have contracted this virus. Additionally, HFRS (the version of the virus the man who died in China Monday likely had) rarely jumps between people, and there is no evidence that the infected man transmitted the virus to anyone else. Of course, if you have been around an infected person or rodents and have fever, deep muscle aches, and severe shortness of breath, see your doctor as soon as possible.