Since 2004, Doug Goodin, professor of geography, has been using remote sensing in Paraguay and Brazil to study the effects of the hantavirus in relation to changes in the physical landscape. Specifically, Goodin said he is examining how these physical changes are affecting mice and other small mammals that are the reservoirs of the virus, and in return how these hantavirus varieties are affected by changes in the reservoir species. A reservoir is host organisms in which the virus can replicate.
“Hantavirus refers to several varieties of viruses that are chiefly spread by wild rodents,” he said. “The viruses primarily cause acute respiratory illness and kidney failure, among other syndromes.”
Although it is estimated that varieties of the virus have been present in Europe and Asia for some time, it didn’t start to gain notoriety within the United States until 1993, when there was an outbreak of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, or HPS, in the Four Corners – a region consisting of southwest Colorado, northwest New Mexico, northeast Arizona and southeast Utah. Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome typically has a 20-40 percent fatality rate.
According to his data, there is a correlation in physical changes to the landscape and the presence of the virus within its reservoir, Goodin said.
Goodin believes if researchers can discover how the virus evolves, they can find out how it works, which will ultimately lead to creating more effective clinical treatments that can combat the different varieties.
“Viruses continually evolve and adapt to changes in their reservoir mammals, which might in turn drive adaptive or evolutionary changes in the virus,” Goodin said. “Right now, by tracking and understanding this, it’s possible that people could eventually predict where outbreaks of the disease might occur.”
By pinpointing these outbreak locations, or hotspots, countries with limited medical infrastructures can be warned of the danger and prepare in advance for it, he said.
The current belief, Goodin said, is that the outbreaks of hantavirus pulmonary syndrome are associated with the climate, and in particular with heavy rainfall.
“The idea is that if you get a lot of rain, it causes the ecosystem to be more productive, which essentially provides more food for the reservoir and then causes a population boom because more offspring get born. These offspring then start spreading out along the landscape, carrying the virus with them, and then when they come in contact with people we get a disease outbreak,” Goodin said. “It’s sound reasoning.”
“The system that we’re looking at in Paraguay, though, is a subtropical rainforest, so its productivity is a lot more loosely tied to its precipitation climatology. Because of this, you don’t see this pattern of population dynamics following precipitation or climate cues quite as closely,” he said.
What is seen are the actions of humans changing the surface of the earth through agriculture and the continual reemergence and evolution of the hantavirus, Goodin said. These changes in the virus are tied to changes in the landscape.
Goodin conducted his research with the assistance of a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
Remote sensing is the science of gathering data on an object or area by using radar or infrared images shot from space.