Two people in New Mexico have died from hantavirus this year

At least two people in New Mexico have died from a rare but dangerous form of hantavirus infection so far in 2023, local health officials reported this week. Four other residents were hospitalized, although they ultimately survived. These viruses are contracted primarily through exposure to rodents, including their urine, and are generally not contagious between people.

There are dozens of known hantavirus species, which are broadly divided into those found in the western or eastern hemisphere (“New World” and “Old World” hantaviruses). Most of them originate from rodents and are not supposed to make them sick. But some hantaviruses can cross over and infect humans, potentially causing fatal disease.

New World hantaviruses can cause a serious respiratory condition known as hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, or HPS (Old World hantaviruses are more likely to cause a condition called hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome, with symptoms similar to Ebola infection). There is no specific treatment for HPS and its mortality rate in the United States is approximately 35%.

On Wednesday, the New Mexico Department of Health reported that six residents have been diagnosed with HPS so far in 2023. Two have died, while four ended up in hospital needing oxygen or intensive care to survive their ordeal. The current tally is higher than the historical average seen in the state, with New Mexico typically reporting three to four cases per year.

Hantaviruses can sometimes be transmitted through rodent bites. But most often it is caught by breathing in fresh poo and urine particles that have been thrown into the air or by directly touching their feces/urine. Only one species of hantavirus, Andes virus, has been transmitted from person to person, but this virus is more commonly found in South America. The primary vector of hantavirus in New Mexico is the deer mouse, and the most common germ behind human cases in the United States is called Sin Nombre virus.

The first known cases of HPS in the United States were discovered in the early 1990s. And although rodents carrying potentially dangerous hantaviruses have been found throughout the country, serious infections remain very rare. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 850 cases of hantavirus disease in the United States have been documented between 1993 and 2021, including some non-HPS cases.

Yet these infections are more common in southwestern states like New Mexico, which was one of four states where the first known outbreaks of HPS occurred. And people in those areas can take precautions to avoid the risk of catching hantavirus, health officials say.

“Everyone in New Mexico should educate themselves about hantavirus infections and take necessary steps to minimize possible exposures,” Chad Smelser, deputy state epidemiologist, said in a statement released by the Department of Health. from New Mexico. “The key to preventing infections is avoiding exposure to rodents and their nests.”

These steps include sealing homes to prevent rodent infestations, removing nearby piles of trash or trash that might attract rodents to set up camp, ventilating buildings or vehicles that have not been visited for some time and the soaking of discovered rodent nests and droppings. with a disinfectant before attempting to clean them.

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