Here's what you need to know about this rare virus.

Sarah Klein
August 28, 2018

A North Dakota woman recently died from a rare virus called hantavirus that’s usually spread through rodent droppings, according to the North Dakota Department of Health.

“The individual, an adult female from the Northeast portion of the state, did have possible contact with rodent urine or droppings or rodents in the environment,” the NDDoH said in a news release issued August 27.

North Dakota hasn’t had a case of hantavirus since 2016 and has only documented 16 total cases since 1993, but eight of those 16 cases were fatal.

Hantavirus is extremely rare: There have been just 728 cases in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It spreads to people through contact with infected mice and rats, or their saliva or droppings.

More than 96% of all cases in the United States occur west of the Mississippi River, according to the NDDoH, which was the case for a New Mexico woman who died in April from hantavirus after spending weeks on life support. The 27-year-old mom, Kiley Lane, was initially thought to have an intestinal blockage and then the flu before she was tested for the rodent-spread virus.

Lane first spoke to doctors about nausea and stomach pain in January, People reported, and was given laxatives to treat what was thought to be an intestinal blockage. But after she developed difficulty breathing, her husband encouraged her to return to the hospital. “Our family doesn’t really go to the doctor a lot, but in this particular case, her husband just had the gut instinct that they didn’t need to wait around and he took her into the ER pretty quickly,” Lane’s mother Julie Barron told People in February.

Lane was placed on a ventilator and tested for a handful of diseases including hepatitis, pneumonia, and the flu as her condition worsened. Doctors finally tested her for the rare hantavirus; results came back positive on February 5. She was then flown to an Albuquerque ICU and placed on a form of life support. “They just want her to get better and she is improving,” Barron said at the time. “But they think she needs to be improving a little bit faster.”

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Barron was optimistic about Lane’s condition in February, but in April she “died peacefully on her own,” Barron wrote on Facebook

Hantavirus infections can progress to Hantavirus Pulmonary Syndrome (HPS), which causes fatigue, fever, muscles aches, dizziness, nausea, and other symptoms easily mistaken for the flu. As in Lane’s case, HPS can progress and cause shortness of breath. The North Dakota woman, who has not been identified, also developed HPS. Nearly 40% of people who do die from the disease, according to the CDC. The condition is typically treated with ventilation and blood oxygenation, according to the Mayo Clinic.

At the time, no one was sure how Lane contracted hantavirus. Tests of rodent droppings near her home were negative, USA Today reported.

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To prevent the spread of hantavirus, the Mayo Clinic recommends taking careful measures to make sure rodents don’t have access to your home. Seal up holes and clear away brush or garbage that might become nesting spots. Set traps if necessary, and make sure food isn’t within easy reach of rodents.

If you do spot a mouse or rat, disinfect the area with household cleaners. Inhaling the virus is the main route of transmission to humans, according to the Mayo Clinic, so consider wearing a respirator if you’re cleaning an area with a serious rodent infestation.