Health officials in Missouri are searching to see if ticks in the area are carrying a rare virus, following the death of a state park employee.
The news comes as concerns about tick-borne disease — in particular Lyme disease — have grabbed headlines in recent weeks.
Tamela Wilson, 58, died in June a few weeks after being diagnosed with the tick-borne Bourbon virus, according to her family. Wilson lived and worked at Meramec State Park.
“She developed this rash, a real light rash to her abdomen and extremities,” Wilson’s daughter, Amie May, told Healthline. “They knew she had an infection and weren’t sure what the infection was.”
May explained that Wilson had two ticks removed from her body shortly before Memorial Day, but didn’t think much of it until weeks after she felt so sick she was hospitalized.
May said it was “not unusual at all” to see ticks while working in the park. She said her mother “was used to tick bites.”
A new disease
Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said that little is known about who is at risk for the Bourbon virus since only a few people have been diagnosed with the disease.
“We don't really know that much about it,” Schaffner said. “It's so rare and we only have the capacity relatively recently to make these diagnoses.”
Bourbon virus was first diagnosed in a man from Bourbon County, Kan., who later died from the infection.
Symptoms include headache, muscle aches and pains, rash, and kidney impairment, according to Schaffner. Patients often have lowered white blood cell and platelet counts, which can indicate a viral rather than bacterial infection.
Schaffner said improved antibody testing in recent years has allowed disease experts to detect cases of these rare viral infections by ticks. In addition to Bourbon virus, the tick-borne Heartland virus was discovered in 2012.
“These are very serious viral infections that involve multiple body organ systems,” Schaffner explained.
Currently there are no antiviral medications to treat these infections.
The CDC reports that Bourbon virus has been reported in the Midwest and southern U.S., but they do not know if the virus is also in other parts of the country.
May said her mother’s doctors initially suspected she might have the more common tick-borne illness, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
But eventually they sent her blood to the CDC when doctors were unable to make a diagnosis. The CDC found signs that Wilson had Bourbon virus.
CDC officials are now collecting ticks from the Meramec State Park to see if they are carrying the virus.
While Wilson had also been in treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma since 2012, her daughter said it was the tick-borne virus that quickly led to her decline in health.
“She had been treating it for the five years she had it,” May said of her mother’s lymphoma, pointing out she was still working full time when she became ill. “She was healthy as she could be.”
For Wilson, the disease caused a rash so painful she could barely speak or eat. Even her palms were covered by the raised red rash making it difficult for her to hold a cup.
“The last week that she was in the hospital it was a really rough week,” May recalled.
Despite doctors having a diagnosis, there was little they could do except offer supportive care. May said her mother died in June after she developed breathing difficulties. It was about a month after she first noticed the two ticks.
May said she wants to draw attention to her mother’s story to raise awareness that tick bites can be deadly.
“This virus isn't treatable,” May said. “Prevention being the key in what I’m trying to do here.”
She said that everyone should take steps, even in the summer, to protect themselves from tick bites. The CDC also recommends using insect repellants, wearing long sleeves, and avoiding bushy areas to diminish exposure to ticks that could carry the virus.