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June 24, 2014 at 8:00 AMComments: 0 Faves: 0

New 'Heartland Virus' Is Being Contracted Through Tick Bites

By Jeffrey VanWingen M.D. More Blogs by This Author

Photo Credit: Southern Maine Mosquito Squad

My phone's been ringing this week with patients concerned about tick bites. These ticks are out in full force - it's summer after all. Patients have been expressing the shock and awe that some other organism has happened on them and set up shop to feast on their flesh. Catering to their freaked out situations, I've looked at several dead ticks brought in ziplocks and even a cell phone video of a tick walking across a table. Patients feel dirty, vulnerable, invaded. Of late, thanks to a newly identified virus, they feel paranoid too.

The Heartland Virus, spread by tick bites, is new on the scene and the news has recently reported on another death. Do we have anything to worry about?  Is it spreading?  How do we treat it?

Straight Out of the Heartland

In northwestern Missouri five years ago, two farmers were hospitalized with fever and severe muscle aches. They also had some bizarre findings on their blood work, low white blood cells (the body's immune cells) and low platelets (clotting particles). The farmers coincidentally reported recent tick bites. When testing and treatment were not forthcoming, the thought was given that perhaps this was something new and unique.

As with anything unusual or new in the medical field, the Center for Disease Control was on the scene to investigate.  heir research revealed a new virus and it was named the Heartland Virus after its place of discovery. Heartland is a phlebovirus, a small class of uncommon viruses transmitted by insect vectors. The culprit identified as passing the virus to humans is the Lone Star Tick, a small tick common to the southern United States. To date, no treatment has been helpful against Heartland infection.

Smoldering Fire

Since its discovery in 2009, only a handful of Heartland Virus infections have been identified.  Besides the original two cases, six were diagnosed in 2012 and 2013.  All identified cases have been in either Missouri or Tennessee. There have been two deaths so far associated with the Heartland Virus. Both deaths occurred in patients who were relatively ill to begin with.  All persons infected were known to have spent a lot of time in the outdoors putting them at risk for tick exposure. Over the recent years, infections haven't exactly spread like wildfire, but the news caught wind of the virus with a recent update report on the virus by the CDC and the fact that it is a bad year for ticks, made them jumpy.

Reason for Worry?

The Heartland Virus is so uncommon as to not be the first thing to worry about if bitten by a tick. Furthermore, it doesn't seem to be spreading geographically, in prevalence or in different tick species over a five year span. Many other illnesses can be spread through tick bites from Lyme Disease to secondary skin infections to even meat allergies from an immune reaction to the tick's saliva. (See my past blogs on Lyme Disease and meat allergies for more information.)

To spare the common dread and the uncommon illness related to tick bites, the best thing to do is prevent bites in the first place - wearing protective clothing when walking in the woods or fields of tall grass. Cutting grass short can also prevent exposure. Permethrin products kill ticks and can be applied to clothing, boots and camping gear. DEET is a deterrent to ticks when applied to the skin and clothing. 

Finally, careful skin checks can catch ticks before they have a chance to set up shop.  For more information of tick prevention, I recommend the CDC web document: http://www.cdc.gov/features/stopticks/

Have a fun and safe and tick-free summer!

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