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  • The Heartland virus is a tick-borne virus that’s been found in multiple U.S. states.
  • Symptoms of infection include fever, fatigue, and loss of appetite.
  • At least 50 cases have been detected so far.

A tick-borne virus is making headlines after new research showed that it’s appeared in multiple states.

The Heartland virus was initially discovered in Missouri in 2009, but according to a recent study, it has now established itself in the state of Georgia.

Researchers said that most cases were found in people with pre-existing conditions, and these illnesses were “predominately severe or fatal.”

“Heartland is an emerging infectious disease that is not well understood,” Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec, PhD, the senior author of the study, said in a statement.

“We’re trying to get ahead of this virus by learning everything that we can about it before it potentially becomes a bigger problem.”

According to an article published in Missouri Medicine in June 2009, two men from Northwestern Missouri, ages 57 and 67, were hospitalized after experiencing symptoms that included fever, fatigue, and loss of appetite.

After doctors ruled out several possible causes, PCR analysis and electron microscopy revealed that they’d contracted a previously unknown virus. It was later named Heartland virus and traced back to the lone star tick.

The next cases weren’t discovered until 2012 when five Missouri residents and one Tennessee resident were found to have contracted the virus.

The patients were all men between 50 and 80 years old who presented with fever, low blood platelet count, and decreased white blood cell levels when first evaluated.

They all reported fatigue and loss of appetite, and most also had headaches, nausea, and muscle or joint pain.

Four of the five men were hospitalized, with one man dying. They’d all spent time outdoors, and most said that they were bitten by ticks within 2 weeks of becoming ill.

Over 50 cases of Heartland virus have been identified as of January 2021, reported the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Cases have been found in the Midwestern and Southern United States, with most people diagnosed becoming sick from May through September.

The CDC cautions that all “residents of and visitors to areas where Heartland virus activity has been identified are at risk of Heartland virus infection,” particularly those who work or play outdoors.

“Most people who are infected with the heartland virus will experience symptoms similar to other tick-borne illnesses,” Anjali Bharati, DO, an emergency department doctor at Lenox Health Greenwich Village in New York, told Healthline.

“It may take one to 2 weeks after the tick bite for any symptoms to appear,” she continued. “Some people who are elderly or chronically ill may experience more severe symptoms and need to be hospitalized.”

According to Bharati, symptoms are similar to those associated with Lyme and other tick-borne diseases, with headache and fatigue the most common symptoms.

Lone star ticks are found mostly in woodlands with dense undergrowth and animal resting areas.

They can transmit germs that cause potentially deadly Rocky Mountain spotted fever and southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI). They’re “aggressive human biters,” and their bite is associated with the development of a red meat allergy in some people.

The Emory University study identified the Heartland virus in three different specimen samples of lone star ticks that were collected in different locations and times and included nymph and adult stages of the ticks.

Genetic analysis of three Georgia samples found that while their genomes were similar to one another, they were very different from that of Heartland virus samples outside the state.

“These results suggest that the virus may be evolving very rapidly in different geographic locations, or that it may be circulating primarily in isolated areas and not dispersing quickly between those areas,” Vazquez-Prokopec said in a statement.

Bharati confirmed that there are no known treatments for Heartland virus infection. However, many cases do resolve without medical treatment.

“In many cases, patients need to be hospitalized to treat symptoms of dehydration or severe pain,” she said. “This virus also may cause low white blood cell counts, which increase the risk of other infections, and/or low platelets, which may increase the risk of bleeding.”

She advises anyone experiencing symptoms of a tick-borne illness after spending time outdoors to see a healthcare professional.

Emory University researchers are also investigating the arrival of Asian longhorned ticks in Georgia.

Native to China, Japan, Russia, and parts of the Pacific, the CDC says that this tick was first detected in the United States in 2017 and has spread to many other states, including Georgia.

The Asian longhorned tick carries bacteria and viruses that can pass to humans, including the thrombocytopenia syndrome virus.

“We are investigating not only the potential agricultural impact of the Asian longhorned tick in Georgia, but the potential for this invasive tick to spread SFTS and other diseases to people,” Vazquez-Prokopec said in a statement.

Sunjya Schweig, MD, founder and president of the California Center for Functional Medicine, said that more research on ticks and tick-borne diseases is needed.

“But what we know is that ticks are moving into new regions across the USA, and we are learning that they can cause more human disease than previously documented,” he said.

Schweig pointed out that the Heartland virus is just one of 27 identified tick-borne bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens that ticks can transmit to humans via a tick bite.

“Tick bite prevention protocols and performing careful tick checks are important,” he said. “Since the sooner you can remove an attached and feeding tick, the less time it has to transmit pathogens from its body into your body.”

The Heartland virus was originally identified in 2009 in Missouri and has spread through many U.S. states.

It’s carried by the lone star tick and can cause severe illness in people with underlying medical conditions.

Experts say that there’s no known treatment, but most recover after infection. Tick bite prevention is key.