PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) -- Panama declared an epidemic alert and canceled traditional Lenten carnivals in a central province after the country's first outbreak of the deadly hantavirus killed three people.
Six more people were hospitalized with the pneumonia-like effects of the virus in the central province of Los Santos, 150 miles west of Panama City, Health Minister Jose Teran said late Thursday.
"This situation constitutes an extremely grave danger for the population of this province, because in other countries hantavirus has caused large numbers of deaths in short periods of time," Teran said.
The Health Ministry said tests conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control confirmed that a total of nine people -- five women and four men -- had been infected with the virus. The biggest outbreak of the virus to date in Latin America occurred in Chile in 1997, killing 16 people.
Authorities said they believed the infection had been spread by rats or field mice. Los Santos is a largely agricultural region, with a large number of cattle ranches. In the United States, the virus is most often carried by deer mice.
While the virus is not commonly spread by contact between humans, authorities canceled the planned March 4 carnival in Los Santos, which draws thousands of visitors to the region each year. Authorities said they would monitor people entering and leaving the province.
They also urged residents to seal garbage containers to prevent rodents from entering their homes.
The deadly respiratory illness can be contracted by humans who inhale dust containing particles of infected rodent feces, urine or saliva. Many cases involve people who cleaned up areas infested by mice. About 45 percent of those infected with the virus die.
Early symptoms of hantavirus include fever and muscle aches, possibly chills, headache, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain and cough. Symptoms develop within six weeks after exposure.