Hanta virus health alert in Chile: four deaths and counting

SANTIAGO – Every summer, Chile issues a hantavirus alert. This summer is no exception, but, unlike others, the alert originated with neighboring Argentina. A vaccine has been developed, but the government is not interested. 

Every summer brings an important alert about the potentially deadly hantavirus, an alert that sometimes upends vacation plans to the countryside.

This year, however, the initial alert was issued for Argentina, specifically, in the area of ​​Epuyén with several confirmed cases. This attracted the Chilean government’s attention, which increased after cases in Chile were also confirmed.

18 confirmed cases and 4 deaths so far

According to Chile’s Health Ministry, by Feb. 19 there were 16 confirmed cases of hanta virus infection in the country. Then, last week, on Feb. 21, the ministry confirmed another two cases.

These last two involve women from the Maule region who are now being treated in Concepción. According to BíoBíoChile, these cases represents the sixth and seventh in the Maule region so far in 2019.

According to T13, the virus has also claimed 4 lives this season.

Dr. Andrés Soto, an infectious disease specialist at the Salvador Hospital, spoke with Chile Today and explained that the number of cases so far this year “are within normal range.”

Soto also noted that the virus usually affects more men than women, because men “are more exposed to rural work,” which is often where the contagion exists.

What is hanta virus?

According to the Health Ministry’s website, the hanta virus is defined as “viral zoonoses transmitted to humans by wild rodents,” and it is “endemic” to Chile.

This virus “is transmitted mainly through the inhalation of aerosols produced from the urine, feces, or saliva of an infected rodent.” This is why people who live, work, or vacation in rural areas are more prone to infection.

The virus typically causes “fever, myalgia, headache, in some cases gastrointestinal disorders, followed by respiratory distress and hypotension [low blood pressure].” In more serious cases, it results in severe respiratory failure, shock, and even death.

As Soto explained, fatalities from the disease are usually caused by lung failure associated with hantavirus “cardiopulmonary syndrome” a.k.a. hantavirus pulmonary syndrome or HPS.

Soto also explained why the virus is described as “very deadly”: the mortality rate is as high as 25%. In fact, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the mortality rate is as high as 36% for those afflicted with HPS. Over the years, however, the mortality rate has been dropping, Soto added.

Soto also described measures to prevent infection: “the preventive measures are quite basic: the important thing is to maintain the cleanliness of the places where people live or work and keep the garbage in closed containers.” He also emphasized “the importance of ventilating places at least 30 minutes before entering.”

The culprit

But the question now is, Who is the guilty culprit transmitting this deadly virus?

The hanta virus is usually transmitted by wild mice. In Chile, the primary suspect is the colilargo mouse (Oligoryzomys longicaudatus), which lives everywhere from the Atacama Desert in the north to the Aysén region in the south.

The mouse prefers “precordilleranos” sectors and rural and riverine areas. It is small, has grayish brown fur, and its most noteworthy characteristic is its long tail, from which it gets its formal Latin name: longi (long) + caudatus (tailed).

An important solution goes unsupported?

It’s not all bad news regarding the virus though. According to CNN Chile, Dr. María Inés Barría, a microbiologist at the University of Concepción, has managed to create a vaccine for the virus. Since 2014, she and her team have been working on this important project.

When Barría presented this potential solution to the government in a search for financing, however, the Undersecretary of Health, Jaime Burrows, rejected it. In an interview with Paula magazine, Barría said that Burrows told her that “we are not interested in this product because, under my management, the mortality of hanta was reduced.”

In the same interview, Barría also said that she “expected the Ministry of Health to show some interest in the vaccine, not even to buy it, or to invest, but only to be interested.” Barría also added, “If the Minsal does not get involved, the drug ‘someday’ will be taken by a pharmaceutical company and cost millions.”

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