SAN LUIS VALLEY – Twenty-four years after its discovery, Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) continues to be a mystery in most of the country and a special concern in the San Luis Valley. The disease is of concern to public health officials here because it is more common in the San Luis Valley than most places, and it has an extremely high fatality rate. Of those who develop the illness, 38 percent do not survive.
“Awareness, prevention, and early medical care are key to protecting local residents from this dangerous disease,” says SLV Regional Epidemiologist Ginger Stringer. Prevent exposure by avoiding contact with rodents, their urine and droppings, and their nesting materials. It is especially important to take precautions, such as wearing appropriate facemasks and wetting down areas to be cleaned with a bleach solution, to prevent the virus from being breathed in.
If a person is exposed to the virus, it may take one to eight weeks for symptoms to develop. Early symptoms are fatigue, fever and muscle aches, especially in large muscles. Some people also have headaches, nausea, and other symptoms. Four to 10 days later, late symptoms of coughing and shortness of breath appear as the lungs fill with fluid. A patient’s condition can deteriorate very quickly at that stage.
Although it existed earlier, hantavirus was not identified until 1993, when a drought in the Four Corners area was followed by a year of heavy snow and rainfall. Plants flourished and the rodent population increased tenfold because there was plenty for them to eat. A young, healthy man and his fiancé came down with a mysterious respiratory illness and died very rapidly within a week of one another. Baffled doctors and researchers began investigating as more cases of the disease were reported. Eventually the researchers were able to link the illness to the previously unknown hantavirus. Forty-eight cases were identified that first year, and more than half of them were fatal.
Fast forward to 2016, and 31 states have still not had a single reported exposure to the virus. New Mexico has had more cases than any other state, and Colorado comes in at a close second. Colorado saw 11 cases of HPS in 2016. Nearly half of those cases were in the San Luis Valley. The rate of Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS) is between 9 and 63 times higher in the San Luis Valley than in the state of Colorado as a whole.
More information about hantavirus can be found at cdc.gov/hantavirus.