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Is it true that hantavirus infection can be acquired from rodent excrement?

In 1993, a young Navajo woman arrived at an emergency room in New Mexico suffering from flu-like symptoms and shortness of breath. Despite such “minor” symptoms, she soon passed away. Ironically, this woman’s death would help scientists piece together the cause of the “1993 Four Corners” pulmonary illness outbreak.

The autopsy reports revealed that this young woman’s lungs were filled with fluid. In fact, her lungs were twice the normal weight expected for someone her size and age! But the cause of death remained a mystery. A month later, her fiancé ended up in the same emergency room with the same symptoms. He also died. Before long more than a dozen people died of the same illness. Physicians in the area notified the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), but no one had a solution to this mystery illness.

Many physicians and scientists worked on this case. Lung tissues were analyzed but it took time until virologists identified the virus responsible for the respiratory failures. This newly discovered viral infection was named Sin Nombre virus infection or Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS).

Although this viral infection was tagged as a new disease, the symptoms were well known to the Navajo people who had associated them with mice. Surprisingly, after trapping various types of rodents, researchers confirmed that this lethal Hantavirus emerged from mice and some rats. More specifically, deer mice, white-footed mice, rice rats and cotton rats were found to be the main source of HPS.

People can become infected with HPS if they touch mouse or rat urine, droppings or nesting materials. In addition, people contract the virus by breathing in HPS or by being bitten by an infected rodent. So how do you know if you have been infected with HPS? Fever, muscle aches, fatigue and shortness of breath are the common symptoms experienced for 1-5 weeks following exposure. Although there is no specific treatment, cure or vaccine for HPS, infection is not a death sentence; two thirds of victims do survive. Should you need yet another reason to minimize relationships with rodents and their excreta, Hantavirus is it.

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