Although a year only sees about 30 hantavirus infection in the United States—in part because it is not contagious but is transmitted by particulate dust in the feces of rodents—it is one of the deadliest viruses. The mortality rate from hantavirus pulmonary infection is believe to be as high as 40 percent. The virus produces flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headaches, nausea, diarrhea, and abdominal pain, but starts to affect the lungs and heart in as little as four days. That means it is important that anyone who may have been exposed to rodent droppings and exhibits these symptoms seek medical attention right away.
In a recent study, scientists identified four proteins that were involved in hantavirus infection. The proteins are part of the mechanism that regulates the production of cholesterol. That means that statin drugs, taken to help lower cholesterol, can also be effective against hantavirus, helping to prevent infection. Another, experimental drug that works directly on the proteins involved also reduces hantavirus infection risk.
Another way to prevent the illness is to eliminate the primary transmission vector, the rats responsible for transmitting the virus to humans. In Chile, home of a common strain known as Andes virus, owls are being used to keep the rat population down. In Chilean forests, campers and others are prone to getting the disease from the long-tailed pygmy rice rat, an asymptomatic carrier of the disease. The rats, however, are prey for two species of owl native to the Andes Mountains. Although local beliefs connect the hooting of the owls with death, their presence actually helps control the rice rat population and prevent the spread of disease.
Other prevention efforts similarly focus on eliminating the rodents themselves. This means closing holes where the pests can get in getting rid of trash and other material they can use to make nests, getting rid of food garbage they can eat, and, in some cases, setting traps. Cleaning rodent-infested areas with bleach will kill the virus in dust and prevent live virus from being inhaled. There is no antiviral treatment for hantavirus, so when someone has been infected, treatment generally entails addressing the symptoms and a ventilator to provide assisted respiration as the infection runs its course.