Hantavirus is a potentially fatal infection carried by rodents and transmitted to humans through their droppings. All cases of hantavirus have the potential to develop into hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS), a serious respiratory disease.
Coming in contact with infected rodents instantly places you at risk of the condition, which mainly results from cleaning out old spaces, such as garages, sheds, and attics, where mice and rats can freely roam. Though the disease has received recent press, the first reported and named outbreak took place in 1993 in the southwestern U.S. As seen in the first known case of HPS, it can affect and cause death in anyone, even the healthy and young. However, it cannot pass from one human to another.
A recent occurrence in Yosemite National Park claimed three lives, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with ten total infections. There may have been more unreported cases, as the outbreak affected visitors to two different groups of tent-style cabins in the park. Hantavirus only affects a small amount of Americans each year, though one-third of cases are typically fatal. When the infections develops into HPS, the entire respiratory system fights for survival, which can lead to death. Deer mice are the most common carriers of hantavirus, which does not make the rodent ill, but when it bites a human or its droppings or urine are inhaled, hantavirus causes illness in people.
Comparable to symptoms of the influenza virus, those infected by hantavirus experience chills, fatigue, fever, and muscle aches (notably in hips, thighs, and back) during the onset. Within one or two days, breathing becomes difficult, despite a potential interval of feeling temporarily better in between. Suddenly, the disease will pick up momentum and symptoms will worsen, including dizziness, headache, abdominal pain and digestive problems such as diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. Hantavirus also produces a general feeling of illness, making it harder to perform tasks and feel energetic.
If the illness develops into hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, typically 1 to 5 weeks after exposure to the rodent infection, additional symptoms will occur. Within 4 to 10 days after experiencing the first round of symptoms, a shortness of breath occurs with a dry cough. One survivor of HPS said it felt like a “…tight band around my chest and a pillow over my face,” which comes from the lungs filling with fluid.
In order to determine whether a person is infected with hantavirus, they must go through various tests, which will include a physical exam and possibly blood tests, a chest X-ray, kidney and liver function exams, a complete metabolic panel, and a complete blood count.
Once determined as hantavirus, a person will be sent to the hospital, typically into intensive care. In the ICU, patients are provided oxygen, and given breathing tubes in serious cases. While there are no medications to cure HPS, if kidney problems are evident, doctors may prescribe ribavirin to offer some relief. As the nature of viruses is to go away on their own, hantavirus can similarly disappear. However, you should notify your provider immediately if you know you have been in proximity to rodents, and are feeling fatigued, feverish, extremely short of breath, and your muscles are aching deeply. Tell your provider if you have been near rodents, which will alert them to the possible presence of HPS.
How Your Health Plan Can Help
Though no particular treatment can cure HPS or early stage hantavirus, getting in touch with your provider can help prevent your illness from worsening, and even save your life. Instant access to a doctor is key when a disease such as hantavirus is in question, and your health plan will connect you to invaluable resources when you need them. Without coverage, you unfortunately run the risk of paying out-of-pocket and delaying your admission. Throughout history, being insured has been the easiest way to get the services you need for a reduced rate.
As hospital bills can run into the thousands, it is best to have a comprehensive plan that can cut that overall cost drastically. Certain plans cover hospital stays for a copay, though it tends to be more rare with individual PPOs and more common among HMOs, but at the very least you can reduce your overall deductible or pay a percentage of coinsurance. You will also need coverage for the consultation and possible testing involved. Many bills can amount from an illness such as HPS. Make sure you have a list of in-network providers to turn to if you do require testing or admittance to the ICU.
1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Hantavirus.
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Outbreak of Hantavirus Infection in Yosemite National Park.
3. PubMed Health. Hantavirus.
4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tracking a Mystery Disease: The Detailed Story of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS).
5. Images: Encyclopedia Britannica, sdnhm.org