There are many types of hantavirus throughout the world and they can cause a range of diseases in people. Some hantaviruses cause haemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS), while others may cause hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS).

Each hantavirus type has a specific host species – typically rodents – and can infect people when they breathe in air that has the virus particles in it, usually from urine, faeces, saliva or dust from the animals’ nests. In rare cases, you can also get infected by a bite from an infected animal. In Africa, indigenous hantaviruses have been found in rodents, shrews and bats too.

If you get infected and develop HFRS, the symptoms start within one or two weeks, sometimes even longer. It starts with intense headaches, back and belly ache, fever, chills, nausea and blurred vision. You may also experience flushed cheeks, red and inflamed eyes or a rash. As the disease progresses, you may suffer acute shock, blood vessel (vascular) leakage and acute kidney failure. These symptoms are life-threatening as fluid can accumulate in your organs, preventing them from functioning. Recovery is lengthy and takes weeks or months.

The main way to treat hantavirus infections is supportive therapy that helps to alleviate the symptoms. It includes careful regulation of the patient’s hydration, nutrition and oxygen levels and monitoring blood pressure levels. In severe cases, dialysis may be necessary. An antiviral drug, ribavirin, has been shown to improve outcomes and reduce the risk of death.

If you develop the other form of the disease, HPS, you’ll experience fatigue, fever and muscle aches, particularly in large muscles – thighs, hips and back. There may also be headaches, dizziness, chills, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea and belly ache. After four to 10 days, more severe symptoms develop – cough, shortness of breath and tightness in the chest caused by fluid accumulating in the lungs. This form of the disease can also kill. 

There is no specific treatment for HPS. In intensive care, patients are intubated and receive oxygen therapy, which helps them overcome the period of severe respiratory distress.

Hantavirus infection is rare but extremely dangerous. If you have been around rodents and have some of the symptoms described above, see your doctor immediately. A healthy, varied vegan diet helps you to maintain a healthy body and a strong immune system – a well-nourished person will always have a higher chance of full recovery.