, Volume 30, Issue 2, pp 157-180

New Ecological Aspects of Hantavirus Infection: A Change of A Paradigm and a Challenge of Prevention- A Review

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Abstract

In the last decades a significant number of so far unknown or underestimated pathogens have emerged as fundamental health hazards of the human population despite intensive research and exceptional efforts of modern medicine to embank and eradicate infectious diseases. Almost all incidents caused by such emerging pathogens could be ascribed to agents that are zoonotic or expanded their host range and crossed species barriers. Many different factors influence the status of a pathogen to remain unnoticed or evolves into a worldwide threat. The ability of an infectious agent to adapt to changing environmental conditions and variations in human behavior, population development, nutrition, education, social, and health status are relevant factors affecting the correlation between pathogen and host. Hantaviruses belong to the emerging pathogens having gained more and more attention in the last decades. These viruses are members of the family Bunyaviridae and are grouped into a separate genus known as Hantavirus. The serotypes Hantaan (HTN), Seoul (SEO), Puumala (PUU), and Dobrava (DOB) virus predominantly cause hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS), a disease characterized by renal failure, hemorrhages, and shock. In the recent past, many hantavirus isolates have been identified and classified in hitherto unaffected geographic regions in the New World (North, Middle, and South America) with characteristic features affecting the lungs of infected individuals and causing an acute pulmonary syndrome. Hantavirus outbreaks in the United States of America at the beginning of the 10th decade of the last century fundamentally changed our knowledge about the appearance of the hantavirus specific clinical picture, mortality, origin, and transmission route in human beings. The hantavirus pulmonary syndrome (HPS) was first recognized in 1993 in the Four Corners Region of the United States and had a lethality of more than 50%. Although the causative virus was first termed in connection with the geographic name of its outbreak region the analysis of the individual viruses indicate that the causing virus of HPS was a genetically distinct hantavirus and consequently termed as Sin Nombre virus. Hantaviruses are distributed worldwide and are assumed to share a long time period of co-evolution with specific rodent species as their natural reservoir. The degree of relatedness between virus serotypes normally coincides with the relatedness between their respective hosts. There are no known diseases that are associated with hantavirus infections in rodents underlining the amicable relationship between virus and host developed by mutual interaction in hundreds of thousands of years. Although rodents are the major reservoir, antibodies against hantaviruses are also present in domestic and wild animals like cats, dogs, pigs, cattle, and deer. Domestic animals and rodents live jointly in a similar habitat. Therefore the transmission of hantaviruses from rodents to domestic animals seems to be possible, if the target organs, tissues, and cell parenchyma of the co-habitat domestic animals possess adequate virus receptors and are suitable for hantavirus entry and replication. The most likely incidental infection of species other than rodents as for example humans turns hantaviruses from harmless to life-threatening pathogenic agents focusing the attention on this virus group, their ecology and evolution in order to prevent the human population from a serious health risk. Much more studies on the influence of non-natural hosts on the ecology of hantaviruses are needed to understand the directions that the hantavirus evolution could pursue. At least, domestic animals that share their environmental habitat with rodents and humans particularly in areas known as high endemic hantavirus regions have to be copiously screened. Each transfer of hantaviruses from their original natural hosts to other often incidental hosts is accompanied by a change of ecology, a change of environment, a modulation of numerous factors probably influencing the pathogenicity and virulence of the virus. The new environment exerts a modified evolutionary pressure on the virus forcing it to adapt and probably to adopt a form that is much more dangerous for other host species compared to the original one.