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One hantavirus death in China sparks ‘hysteria’ over old disease

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One person has reportedly died of a rodent-carried hantavirus infection in China, sparking wild — and completely unfounded — fears of a “coronavirus 2.0″ pandemic on social media.

The Global Times, a state-controlled Chinese publication, tweeted about the death in English late Monday, although a story about the incident has not been posted to its English website.

“A person from Yunnan Province died while he was on his way back to Shandong Province for work on a chartered bus on Monday,” the publication tweeted, along with a photo of someone being screened for COVID-19. “He tested positive for #hantavirus. Other 32 people on bus were tested.”

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Hantavirus is an extremely rare type of virus that infects humans through dust contaminated by the saliva, urine or feces of a rodent, according to the Ontario Ministry of Health and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It causes a nasty disease that attacks the heart and kills about 36-40 per cent of patients, but it doesn’t spread from person to person — a key trait required for a virus to become a pandemic.

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Symptoms include fever, muscle aches, headaches, coughing, nausea and vomiting. Some patients can develop severe or life-threatening symptoms, and it can take up to six weeks from the time of exposure for symptoms to appear.

The disease has been reported in North America since 1993, but Canada only sees approximately three cases a year and the U.S. has recorded about 35 annually, according to the Ontario Ministry of Health. Other strains of the disease have been identified in Europe and Asia since the 1950s.

“The risk of getting infected with a hantavirus in Canada or in other parts of the world is low,” a spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada told Global News in a statement. The spokesperson pointed out that nearly all forms of the virus do not spread through person-to-person contact.

“This is hysteria,” Dr. Stephanie Smith, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Alberta, told Global News. “We have seen hantavirus here in Canada and in the U.S. for many years.”

“It is not transmitted person-to-person like COVID-19,” added Dr. Gerard Evans, another infectious disease specialist at Queen’s University.

“Yeah, it’s hysteria.”

The CDC also quickly swatted down fears of another potential pandemic on Tuesday.

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“Hantavirus is not new, nor is it spread [person to person],” CDC Kenya tweeted, using emojis to illustrate the person-to-person part of the message.

“Please do not panic, unless you plan to eat rats,” neuroscientist Dr. Sumaiya Shaikh tweeted on Tuesday, in the middle of a flurry of social media anxiety.

Nevertheless, people anxious about the novel coronavirus were quick to hit the panic button when they saw the report of a hantavirus-related death in China.

Tweets from the Global Times typically get a handful of retweets and a few dozen likes, but the one about the hantavirus has effectively gone viral, with more than 14,500 shares and 17,000 likes.

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More than 400,000 Twitter messages went out about the virus by Tuesday afternoon.

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Hantaviruses found in the Americas can cause hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, a rare disease that affects the heart and kills about 36 per cent of patients, the CDC says. The U.S. has recorded 728 cases of hantavirus from 1993 to January 2017.

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Hantaviruses in Europe and Asia can cause hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome, the CDC says. That disease kills anywhere from one to 15 per cent of patients, the CDC says.

The best way to stop the spread of hantaviruses is to prevent rodent infestations and to thoroughly clean areas where rodent droppings are found, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

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The World Health Organization monitored an outbreak of about 100 cases in Panama in 2018, and found that there was “no significant risk of international spread.”

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The WHO has warned that the current coronavirus pandemic is happening alongside an “infodemic,” which involves a flood of real and fake reports that can leave anxious news consumers confused about what is real.

The organization urges people to listen to official health authorities — not necessarily what they read on social media.

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are asked to self-isolate for 14 days in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. And if you get sick, stay at home.

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For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.