High lethality: the unknown link between the hanta virus and climate change

February is the month of the year when hantavirus contagion generally peaks. This is explained, among other factors, by the climate favorable to the reproduction of the long-tailed mouse. So, if summers are now longer and temperatures remain high, can hantavirus also spread?

Gloria Navarrete has worked at the Recinto-Pinto station, in the Ñuble region, for more than 30 years. As a senior level nursing technician, witnessed how the hantavirus every summer it sounds the alarm in rural areas and puts at stake the safety of both the inhabitants of the municipality and those who go up into the mountains to camp near the rivers that form in the Nevados de Chillán.

Although there are few cases per year, the lethality of hantavirus is high compared to other diseases of similar origin. Although it has decreased from 80% to 40% over the last decade according to the Ministry of Health , remains a major concern for public attention. This because of There is no vaccine or specific treatment for the disease. but “you just need to alleviate the symptoms,” explains University of Chile epidemiologist Gabriel Cavada.

Long-tailed mouse. Reference image.

Ñuble is one of the regions historically most affected by hanta, along with Maule, Biobío, Los Ríos, Los Lagos and La Araucanía. In 2023, according to data of Minsal, more than 40 cases have been recorded in the country, exceeding the figures since 2020. This is far from being the year with the highest number of infections to date, with 71 cases in 2001.

High lethality: the unknown link between the hanta virus and climate change

However, national and international scientists have warned that these figures could be reached and even higher in the future, due to climate change. . After analyzing 179 cases of hantavirus in Chile, scientists from BioBio University They found that there is a close relationship between environmental factors and hantavirus. Other recent studies (2023) carried out in Belgium , Sweden , Brazil , Türkiye , China and other countries reach similar conclusions.

Some articles even warn that hantavirus could become the next pandemic . But what are the reasons?

Hantavirus is a zoonotic disease, meaning it is transmitted from animals to humans. Currently recognized two major variants of hantavirus in the world , which present different symptoms. In Asia and Europe, hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS) occurs, while in Latin America and Africa it causes Hantavirus cardiopulmonary syndrome (HCPS).

In turn, the animals carrying the virus are different in these places. In Chile, this disease is spread by contact with the excrement of long-tailed mouse (Oligoryzomys longicaudatus)What It lives from the south of the Atacama Desert to the ninth region of La Araucanía. The virus does not affect this animal, which reproduces during the warmer seasons, favored by the food available to the species.

Long-tailed mouse of the species O. Longicaudatus. Reference image.

Climate change has led to rising temperatures in Latin America and increased frequency of heat waves over the past decade . Last year, according to data from the Ministry of Health, the “peak” of cases did not occur in February, as is usual, but in April . This change coincides with the prolonged summers that Chile has experienced, according to the study from the University of Bío Bío.

Furthermore, in 2019, the year when the highest number of cases was recorded, the then Undersecretary Paula Daza explained that in the affected regions there could be seen “a considerable increase in the number of rodents in the area, probably the product of a change in precipitation behavior that has resulted in greater flowering of Quila a vegetable which constitutes the main food of the mouse.

Next pandemic? The unknown link between the Hanta virus and climate change

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) climate change would not only expose Chile and the world to rise of hantavirus. This organization warns that 58% of infectious diseases that have affected humanity show that they have been worsen due to certain climatic risks.

According to ECLAC, it is also important to consider that “the health impacts of climate change worsen to the extent that the population faces social, political and economic circumstances that increase their standard of living. vulnerable situation »

“When there is suspicion and any other illness is ruled out, we must refer patients if they are serious to Chillán Hospital,” Gloria explains. The only hospital in the Ñuble region is more than two hours from the rural post, “But here we cannot take blood samples, because we do not have a laboratory to do it,” explains TENS.

Considering that the majority of people seen in this office are for elderly people residing in the municipalities of Recinto and Pinto, vulnerability rates are high . An increase in hantavirus cases would directly affect this population group, according to studies.

Since the first case recorded in Chile dates back to 1995, the the death of the porter in the town of Coyhaique, The Minsal has launched prevention campaigns both among residents of rural communities and vacationers . Regardless, Gloria believes that we are not yet sufficiently aware of the seriousness of this virus. “It’s only when it happens to someone close to us that we talk about it,” he emphasizes.

Human traces: the unknown link between the hanta virus and climate change

The expansion of cities into rural areas would also have a considerable impact on a possible increase in infections. “As there has been a permanent invasion of humans into rural habitats, the probability of encountering the long-tailed mouse is much higher than in subsequent years” explains epidemiologist U. Chile.

Even if the most affected regions coincide with some of the favorite vacation destinations in Chile According to data from the Ministry of Health, the vast majority of annual cases are residents of rural communities and those who work there.

Source: Hantavirus epidemiological update, May 2023. Ministry of Health.

According to the National Institute of Statistics (INE) HE projects that the rural population will increase by almost 25% by 2035, in the regions of Ñuble, La Araucanía and Los Ríos. Precisely, three of the regions most exposed to hantaviruses.

For Cavada, the fact that infections with this virus will increase in the future due to climate change and the population of the regions, It’s an imminent probability, even if “there is still a lack of scientific information in this regard”. According to the expert, at present, “the only way to avoid this virus is to prevent its contagion”. . According to him, in terms of public health, Chile has made good decisions thanks to information campaigns year after year.

Source: Latercera

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