Health Experts Urge Farming Community to Assist Hantavirus Research Study into rare disease to focus in North Yorkshire and the Humber.
The Health Protection Agency (HPA) is looking for people who work or live on farms in North Yorkshire and the Humber to take part in a research study to assess more accurately how often a disease called hantavirus occurs in people in England.
Hantaviruses are a group of over forty rodent-borne viruses which are globally widespread in the environment. The virus can only be passed to humans through direct contact with rodents or material contaminated with rodent waste (urine and faeces). In most cases, prolonged exposure to rodents carrying the virus is needed for it to be transmitted to people and currently cases of the disease are rarely confirmed in England. The hantaviruses present in Europe do not pass from person-to-person. For these reasons, the risk to people in this country from hantavirus is low, but scientists and health experts at the Health Protection Agency say that further research is needed to understand more accurately how widespread the disease is in England.
The majority of hantavirus infections in humans are mild with non-specific symptoms including fever, headache, blurred vision, gastrointestinal symptoms and back pain. A small proportion of infected people may develop severe disease, which varies depending on the hantavirus responsible. Generally two forms are recognised with severe disease: haemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS), which affects the kidneys and is found in Europe and Asia; and hantavirus cardiopulmonary syndrome (HCPS), which affects the heart and lungs and is found in the Americas.
As part of the study, farmers from North Yorkshire and the Humber will be asked to donate blood and saliva samples to be laboratory tested for hantavirus. Members of the farming community are being tested initially because this is one group who are known to be at greatest risk from the infection.
Dr Autilia Newton, Director of North Yorkshire and the Humber Health Protection Unit, said:
We are working closely with our partners including the local NHS, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to assist our expert scientists in investigating the prevalence of this disease through this study.
The study is focusing on North Yorkshire and the Humber because in recent years two isolated cases of hantavirus, believed to have been acquired locally, have been confirmed in the Humber area. The most recent case was confirmed in January 2012. Both individuals, who had a type of hantavirus disease which causes haemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS), have now recovered.
Lisa Jameson, a research fellow in the Virology and Pathogenesis Department at the Health Protection Agency, Porton, said:
Currently there is no indication that this virus is becoming significantly more prevalent in the UK, but as with all rare infections it’s possible that more cases occur than are reported.
It’s important to be aware that if any of the donated samples test positive, this will only indicate that a person has been in contact with a hantavirus at some time in the past. It does not indicate that the virus made the person ill, or that they are ill now.
No further action will be needed for any individuals who are well if any of the donated samples test positive. However, if our overall findings indicate that further health protection advice is necessary, the HPA will work with the relevant partners to act on this.
Barney Kay, Regional Director of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) North East covering North Yorkshire, said: “We are pleased to be working with the HPA to help them gain a better understanding of this disease. While cases are clearly very rare, we welcome this study into the potential risk faced by our members and assessment of whether any further health protection advice is needed. We will be actively encouraging farmers in North Yorkshire and the Humber to take part in the research.”
The Health Protection Agency is looking for people aged 18 or over who live or work on a farm in North Yorkshire and the Humber* to take part in the study and will be attending farming events throughout February and March to carry out the testing. If you would like to help the HPA with their research and meet the study criteria, please register your interest by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
The HPA will then be able to keep you up-to-date with any farming events where testing is to be carried out.