The Hantavirus Outbreak: 20 Years Later

How scientists and the Texas Tech Tissue Libraries worked together to understand the 1993 epidemic.

Robert Baker

Robert Baker (Photo courtesy of Neal Hinkle)

On Friday, May 14, 1993, a young Native American from near the Four Corners region of New Mexico had just been admitted into the emergency room at Gallup Indian Medical Center. His chest X-rays showed a white-out in his lungs, which had filled with fluid.

Dr. Bruce Tempest, chief of medicine at the hospital and a commissioned officer with the U.S. Public Health Service (Indian Health Service), studied the film and tried to ascertain why this strong, otherwise healthy individual lay in shock so close to death. Little did he know that as he looked for answers, he’d find himself at the beginning of a mysterious epidemic soon to become a household name around the world: hantavirus.

As headlines blared fears of a new disease that might even be an escaped bio-weapon, scientists at universities and public health organizations raced the clock to learn more about the virus and from where it came. Robert Baker, a Horn Professor of Biology at Texas Tech University, had a feeling some answers may lie in the tissue library of the Natural Science Research Laboratory (NSRL) at the museum of Texas Tech.

That was 20 years ago before myriad pieces of an intricate puzzle gave us a clear view of how the disease suddenly leaped onto the scene. Tissue samples from Texas Tech showed the virus was not new to the area. The Four Corners region adapted to the “new” threat that really was there all along. And people like Robert Bradley, a professor of biology and curator of mammalogy at the NSRL, use the skills, knowledge and technological advancements that came during and after hantavirus to see what else might be brewing in our own back yards.

Read more below.


Texas Tech Research Plays Key Role in Identifying Disease

It still hurts some people in the Four Corners area to think about the hantavirus. A group of young, healthy people died. Families lost members. Because the virus attacked more Native Americans, racial issues swirled and people were stigmatized and labeled.

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Staying Prepared for the Next Possible Outbreak

Since the initial outbreak and the public health education that followed, people living in the Southwest have learned to be careful around rodent droppings. That’s not to say that cases don’t still occur.

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Biological Sciences

The Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts & Sciences at Texas Tech University hosts a variety of academic degree programs aimed toward the advancement of knowledge, learning, teaching and research of the natural world.

The Department hosts a variety of centers and programs focused on the life sciences which provide research opportunities including: