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What is Hantavirus? Misleading messages spread fear after death in China

Virus is serious – but should not be compared to current pandemic

Andrew Griffin
Tuesday 24 March 2020 17:36 GMT
Coronavirus: Who should stay home and for how long?

Misleading messages about a new outbreak similar to the coronavirus are circulating on WhatsApp and elsewhere.

The texts, which make reference to the rise of hantavirus, warn that the world could be in danger by yet another disease as it grapples with Covid-19.

But the warnings are overexaggerated. While hantavirus does refer to a dangerous family of viruses, they are not comparable to the new coronavirus and are nowhere near as dangerous.

Hantavirus is not new at all, having been known about for decades and potentially been active for even longer; it does not easily pass between humans; it can only be caught by consuming the bodily fluids of rats or mice; and the world is much better equipped to deal with it, including holding vaccines.

The false messages appear to be attempting to seize on fear around the outbreak of coronavirus to encourage people to share yet more worrying information, and are likely to cause unnecessary anxiety in people already concerned about pandemics.

The WhatsApp messages often make explicit reference to the new coronavirus, suggesting that it could follow in a similar manner.

“When the whole world is still suffering from Covid-19, here comes another virus...” one seen by The Independent reads. “The ‘hanta virus’ has been detected in China, mainly caused by rodents. One already died and few tested positive.”

The story about a death does appear to be correct. Chinese state newspaper Global Times reported that one man had died on his way to Shandong Province on his way to work.

The tweet of that story has now been shared nearly 15,000 times on Twitter alone, and has probably been screengrabbed and spread across the world as an image. While the report of a death is true, any suggestion that it is similar to the outbreak of coronavirus is unfounded for now.

Hantavirus is no doubt a very serious family of diseases. Symptoms can be very severe and it has been known to cause deaths.

The viruses taken together are a family of viruses that are spread by different rodents, and cause a variety of different disease syndromes. Infection can lead to one of a number of different syndromes, which each have their own rodent hosts and are geographically specific: though hantaviruses are found across the Americas, Europe and Asia, the regions lead to different syndromes and symptoms.

Infection usually comes from consuming the urine, faeces or saliva or a rodent, though more rarely it can come from being bitten. People are at particular risk if they live in dusty areas with rodent infestations.

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