Hantavirus: Flu-like symptoms

Hantavirus: Flu-like symptoms

The bank vole, a common but inconspicuous representative of the vole, is more dangerous than many think: it transmits the dangerous hantavirus. The virus has been notifiable in Germany since 2001, with many reported infections in 2007 (1,688) and 2010 (2,017). In the record year of 2012, 2,824 cases were reported to the Robert Koch Institute. After that, however, the numbers fell again; In 2016, there were only 278 reported cases. However, experts estimate that the number of unreported cases is much higher.

What are hantaviruses?

Infection with the hantavirus can cause a sometimes severe illness. The pathogens belong to the Bunyaviridae virus group.

The term hantavirus dates back to the 1950-53 Korean War. There, several thousand soldiers suffered from the so-called Korean fever, accompanied by internal bleeding and kidney failure. The trigger was the hitherto unknown hantavirus, named after the Korean river Hantaan, where the outbreak of the severe illness began.

The pathogens are now widespread worldwide. Hantaviruses are common pathogens, especially in Southeast Asia. However, infectious disease is not uncommon in Europe, either.


Symptoms of hantavirus infection

Anyone with flu-like symptoms for over three days may have contracted the Puumala-type hantavirus. Signs that are particularly characteristic of hantavirus infection are:

The course of an infection with Hantaviruses

Most viral infections go unnoticed, i.e. the course of the disease is asymptomatic or so mild that the person affected does not notice the infection.

A severe course, i.e. diseases with pronounced symptoms, is summarized under the term “haemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome” (HFRS). In the worst case, kidney function is disturbed, or the kidneys fail acutely. In addition, the liver is enlarged. In exceptional cases, a life-threatening tendency to bleed can occur.


transmission of hantaviruses

An increased occurrence of hantavirus infections is usually associated with an intense proliferation of rodents. The natural hosts of hantaviruses are mice and rats. Infected mice shed the viruses via saliva, urine, and faeces. The bank vole, band vole and brown rat are the main vectors in Central Europe. Transmission from person to person or infection via pets and insects is considered unlikely.

Puumalavirus spreads whenever bank vole numbers increase when food is plentiful. Mainly at risk are people who spend a lot of time outdoors, such as foresters, forest workers, farmers, mushroom and berry pickers, and guests and owners of holiday homes near the forest that have been empty for a long time.

Because the virus is transmitted through urine and faeces, dried dusty faeces stirred up when sweeping can enter the respiratory tract. The same can happen when you’re gathering or splitting wood or cleaning sheds, garages, and basements where the little reddish-haired rodents have nested.

Diagnosis of hantavirus infection

The hantavirus group includes around 30 serotypes. These are distinguishable variations of bacteria or viruses. The Puumala virus is mainly distributed in central and northern Europe, named after the Finnish city of Puumala, where this type first appeared.

Antibodies in the patient’s blood detect hantaviruses. Special tests in laboratories reveal which serotypes are involved. According to the German Green Cross, only 60 to 70 per cent of patients develop detectable, specific antibodies in the acute phase.

The problem is that because of the low awareness of hantavirus infections among European doctors, the diseases are sometimes even confused with appendicitis and liver inflammation or misjudged as “kidney failure of unclear origin” or severe flu.

Treat hantavirus infection

So far, there is no vaccine against hantavirus. At best, an illness can be treated symptomatically: if pain or fever occurs, these can be alleviated with medication.

The doctor treats severe cases with ribavirin, which is used in AIDS and hepatitis C, among other things, because it inhibits virus replication. If a hantavirus infection is detected, it must be reported to the responsible health authority.


Prevention of hantavirus infections

As a preventative measure, the Robert Koch Institute recommends paying attention to a few things when cleaning rooms that have not been used for a long time and in which there are a lot of mice – such as barns, attics, garages, storage rooms, workshops, but also terraces:

  • Provide adequate ventilation and wear respiratory protection when cleaning.
  • Clean with a damp cloth to stir up as little dust as possible.
  • Spray stool residue with disinfectant.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly after cleaning.

Dead mice should not be touched with bare hands but with disposable gloves. It would help if you sprayed them with a disinfectant, put them in a plastic bag and seal them well with another plastic bag; then, you can dispose of them with household waste.

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