Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers

What are viral hemorrhagic fevers?

Viral hemorrhagic fevers (VHFs) are illnesses caused by several types of viruses. Some of these viruses cause mild illness. Many others lead to life-threatening diseases with no known cures. One of the best known of this group is the Ebola virus.

Viral hemorrhagic fevers are rare in the U.S. They generally occur in Africa, South American, and Asia. However, health officials are concerned that these viruses could be used in biological terrorism.

What causes viral hemorrhagic fevers?

These illnesses are caused by viruses from 4 groups:

  • Arenaviruses
  • Filoviruses
  • Bunyaviruses
  • Flaviviruses
These viruses infect insects or rodents. You can become infected from exposure to the body, body fluids, or the droppings of an infected rodent or through an insect bite, usually from a mosquito or tick. Some of the viruses  also spread from person to person. Viruses can also be spread if you crush an infected tick.

What are the symptoms of viral hemorrhagic fevers?

The symptoms vary by the specific disease. Each person may also have slightly different symptoms. Various organs in the body can be affected. Symptoms often include:

  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle aches
  • Loss of strength
  • Exhaustion

People with severe cases often show signs of bleeding. This may be under the skin, in internal organs, or from body openings such as the mouth, eyes, or ears. But blood loss is rarely the cause of death. These people may also have:

  • Shock
  • Seizures
  • Nervous system failure
  • Coma
  • Delirium
  • Kidney failure

The symptoms may look like other health problems. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How are viral hemorrhagic fevers diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your past health and travel history. You will also need a physical exam. Blood tests can also help in the diagnosis.

How are viral hemorrhagic fevers treated?

Generally there is no known cure or treatment for these diseases. People with these illnesses may get supportive treatment. This may include getting fluids or assistance with breathing and pain relievers. An antiviral medicine may help some people with Lassa fever.

Can viral hemorrhagic fever diseases be prevented?

No vaccines are available to prevent these diseases. Two exceptions are for yellow fever and Argentine hemorrhagic fever. As a result, the focus is on staying away from the rodents or insects that carry the virus.

For rodents:
  • Control the number of rodents
  • Prevent them from entering or living in homes or workplace
  • Learn how to safely clean up nests and droppings

For viruses spread by ticks or mosquitoes, prevention focuses on:

  • Control mosquitoes and ticks in your environment
  • Use insect repellent, proper clothing, bed nets, window screens, and other insect barriers to avoid being bitten

If you are traveling to an area where there is risk for viral hemorrhagic fevers:

  • Wear long sleeves and long pants treated with permethrin
  • Use insect repellent
  • Use bed nets in areas where outbreaks are occurring
  • Avoid contact with livestock or rodents in areas where outbreaks are occurring

Key points

  • Viral hemorrhagic fevers are illnesses caused by several groups of viruses. They can be mild or life-threatening. Many have no known cure.
  • These viruses live in animals, often in rodents. People can become infected if they come into contact with an infected animal or person. They may also get the disease if they are bitten by a mosquito or tick carrying the virus.
  • No cure or treatment is available for these illnesses.
  • Prevention includes avoiding insect bites and staying away from infected rodents.
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