Epuyén, a paradisiacal Patagonian town, is the epicenter of a Exceptional hantavirus outbreak that has put Argentina on alert. The hanta virus, with flu-like symptoms, is usually transmitted through contact through the saliva, feces and urine of infected mice, but in the strain detected in the province of Chubut there has been infection from person to person. Of the 28 affected by the disease, 10 have died, including a Chilean woman who had traveled to the area. A hundred more residents of Epuyén are isolated by court order in their homes and there are police who guard against going out into the street. In other four provinces of the country there have also been cases, with two fatalities.
Hantavirus is a serious viral disease endemic to Argentina. Between 2013 and 2018 there were 598 people infected, of whom 111 died. The average case-fatality rate in those six years was 18.5%, much lower than the current outbreak in Epuyén, which is 36%, another reason that explains the concern of the Argentine health authorities.
Wild mice transmit the disease to people by eliminating the virus through saliva, feces and urine. The dry secretions are mixed with the powder and can enter the human body by respiratory route or by contact with a contaminated area if there are wounds on the skin. There may also be contagion in case of bites.
The case that started the Epuyén outbreak is suspected of sticking to the usual pattern. This is a man who cleaned an abandoned shed in which there might have been secretions of some mouse with the virus. The infected, who had some symptoms such as headache and muscle pain, attended a birthday party at the end of November in which about 50 people participated. Several of the attendees were infected and then infected others, in a chain that the authorities are trying to stop and that has emptied tourists this year the town.
The Argentine Society of Infectious Diseases has published a report describing the current Patagonian outbreak as "serious" and "infrequent" due to its ability to be transmitted from person to person. Remember that the first antecedent of interhuman transmission was a strain of the same virus registered in the province of Río Negro (neighboring Chubut) in 1995. Since then only 2.5% of cases have been infected through this route.
The incubation period of the virus is one to three weeks and the first symptoms are usually confused with influenza: fever, muscle aches, chills and headaches. Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea may also occur. After a few days some patients begin to suffer respiratory difficulties that, if worsened, can lead to hantavirus pulmonary syndrome. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), which has not been pronounced so far by the Patagonian outbreak, there is no specific treatment for this serious condition.
"We are quite concerned, we are working side by side with the health authorities in Chubut to control the outbreak," Argentine Health Minister Adolfo Rubinstein told the media, who traveled to the affected area on Wednesday.
In addition to Chubut, so far this year have confirmed isolated cases in four other Argentine provinces: Buenos Aires, Entre Rios (east) and the northern Salta and Jujuy. One of those infected in Entre Ríos and another in Jujuy have died, while the other two cases evolve favorably. The contagion has been environmental, that is to say, through contact with the rodents that carry the virus or with their secretions.
Rubinstein believes thate the outbreak of Epuyén "is on track" to be controlled and insists that all necessary measures have been taken to stop its spread. At the Malbrán Institute, the Argentine reference center for hantavirus, they study the characteristics of the Epuyén virus strain, called the Southern Andes, to detect possible mutations. As a precaution, the minister has recommended that no one travel to the area and schools have postponed the start of classes, scheduled for next week.