Six new cases of the Heartland virus, a disease potentially carried by ticks in the southeastern and eastern United States, have been reported so far this year.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported Thursday that a total of eight people have been infected with the virus, which was first discovered in 2009.
The Heartland virus is a version of ehrlichiosis, another tick-borne disease that causes fever, headaches, fatigue, appetite loss, and muscle pain. Unlike ehrlichiosis, Heartland disease is a virus—not a bacterial illness like Lyme disease—and there are currently no known treatments or diagnostic tests for it.
A New Member of the Phelebovirus Family
The disease, first reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in August 2012, was discovered by Dr. Scott Folk, an infectious disease specialist at Heartland Regional Medical Center in St. Joseph, Mo. Two farmers in northwestern Missouri were hospitalized in 2009 with symptoms similar to ehrlichiosis, but treatments and testing proved it was a new and different ailment.
Since then, the CDC and health officials in Missouri and Tennessee have been tracking the disease.
“During the past two years, CDC has worked closely with state health departments, hospitals, and many experts from universities and other federal agencies to learn more about Heartland virus,” Roger Nasci, chief of the CDC’s Arboviral Diseases Branch, said in a statement. “By gathering information about the disease Heartland virus causes, and about how it’s spread to people, we hope to better understand the potential impact on the public’s health and how we can help protect people from this virus.”
8 People Infected to Date
To date, a total of eight people—all white men over the age of 50—have contracted the disease.
Five of the six newly reported cases reported tick bites days or weeks before symptoms began. A CDC study showed that the virus is carried by the Lone Star tick, which is primarily found in the southeastern and eastern United States.
One of the patients hospitalized with Heartland disease has since died, but officials say the man had another health condition. The CDC said it’s unknown if the virus contributed to the man’s death and to what extent.
While the CDC has developed blood tests to confirm new cases of Heartland virus, they also hope to develop a diagnostic test for public health laboratories to use.
While there are no treatments or drugs to combat the virus, other therapies like IV fluids and fever reducers can improve symptoms.
Protecting Yourself from Tick-Borne Diseases
The CDC offers the following tips to help keep people safe from diseases caused by viruses and bacteria carried by ticks:
- Avoid wooded and bushy areas with high grass and leaf litter that can harbor ticks.
- Use insect repellent when outdoors, such as the pesticide permethrin on your clothing.
- Bathe or shower as soon as possible after coming indoors. Check your hair for hidden ticks.
- Conduct a full-body tick check after spending time outdoors.
- Examine your gear and pets, as ticks can ride into the home and attach themselves to you later.