During the last weeks of 2018 and the first of 2019, the country has been on its toes over an outbreak of hantavirus, which, until now, has resulted in the death of 12 people, while dozens of others have shown symptoms of infection.
Hantavirus is a serious viral disease transmitted mainly by mice – through contact with their saliva, feces or urine, which, once dry, can be dispersed into the air and breathed by humans. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the virus has a 38 percent mortality rate, and there is no “specific treatment” for the disease.
Argentina commonly sees between 80 and 100 cases each year; between 2013 and 2018, 111 people have reportedly died from it. However, this year the disease is receiving particular attention due to the appearance of a different strain in the small town of Epuyén, in the province of Chubut.
While, as mentioned, the most common way of contracting hantavirus is through an infected rodent – meaning that most cases are isolated – the victims in Epuyén got it from another human being. In fact, most of the infected patients knew each other, and some were even related.
“What has changed is the way it is transmitted. We knew about inter-human transmission, but we had not seen any cases in the past 20 years. We are working to identify the strain and see whether there was a mutation that contributed to the change in the way the virus is transmitted,” said Health Secretary Adolfo Rubinstein in an TV interview.
According to local press, Epuyén’s “patient zero” caught the decease when cleaning a warehouse. This person then transmitted it to others at a birthday party. As a result, six people died during the last days of December and first days of January. Overall, 10 people have died of hantavirus in Epuyén, while national authorities have confirmed 28 total cases across the country.
The particularity of this strain led Chubut’s Health Ministry to put roughly 50 people who attended the birthday party under quarantine and order 60 more residents who had contact with those infected to remain in “mandatory isolation.” Local authorities, moreover, suspended three traditional celebrations that were to take place in the area.
Oscar Lencinas, president of the City of Buenos Aires’ Pasteur Institute, told Clarín that a main reason for the spread of cases in Patagonia is the fact that “down south, there is a larger mice population.” “Furthermore, at this time of the year, when there is more fruit available, mice eat more and increase their population. Also, in the past years, we have seen a steep decline in the population of their natural predators: foxes and owls. They control the mice population, and if you remove the natural predator, they reproduce greatly,” Lencinas added.
Even though it’s been ten days since the last reported case, secretary Rubinstein, who has spent the last two days in Chubut, said that “hopefully, with this intervention, we will begin to control the outbreak.”
During the past days, new cases were confirmed in different provinces, although neither has the characteristics of the so-called “Andean strain” – in other words, they are isolated cases caught the “regular” way. Two people have died in the provinces of Entre Ríos and Salta, while authorities of Buenos Aires and Jujuy confirmed three and one case, respectively.
In an interview with Página 12, an expert in rodent populations, Guillermo Varela, criticized the Secretariat of Environment and Sustainable development (previously a ministry) for not properly applying protocols to study and analyze the mice that transmit the hantavirus.
“It can’t be the case that the Secretariat does not task biologists with studying the dynamic of this rodent population. We cannot have a multi-disciplinary group without these biologists. By law, the Secretariat should act and collaborate with its health counterpart and implement preemptive actions in the face of natural emergencies and climatic catastrophes. Its absence is notorious,” said Varela, who pressed charges against the Secretariat’s highest official, Sergio Bergman, for “not fulfilling the duties of a public official.
The Health Secretariat, on its end, published a series of recommendations aimed at helping people avoid catching the disease. They are:
- Avoid contact with rodents or their feces
- Prevent rodents from entering or nesting in houses
- Fill holes in doors, walls or pipes
- Clean floors, walls, doors, tables, drawers and cupboards with one part of bleach every eight parts of water (leave for 30 minutes and then rinse). Wet the floor before using a broom to avoid dust from coming up
- When about to enter a place that has been closed for a while, let fresh air enter the space for at least 30 minutes before doing so. Cover mouth and nose before entering
- If you find a live rodent: Use poison for rodents and traps to catch it – don’t try to touch or strike it. Ask your district authorities if they have a plague control service
- If you find a dead rodent: Spray it with bleach along with everything that it may have touched and wait at least 30 minutes to pick anything up. Bury it at a depth of 30 centimeters, or burn it
- People who present symptoms of the disease must immediately go to a health center to receive treatment, and avoid contact with other people