CDC reports more cases of Heartland virus

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT/KFVS) - The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in collaboration with health officials in Missouri and Tennessee have identified six new cases of people sick with Heartland virus: five in Missouri and one in Tennessee.

The new cases, discovered in 2012 and 2013, are in addition to two discovered in 2009 and are described today in CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

Heartland virus was first reported in two northwestern Missouri farmers who were hospitalized in 2009 with what was thought to be ehrlichiosis, a tick-borne disease. However, the patients failed to improve with treatment and testing failed to confirm ehlrlichiosis. Working with state and local partners, CDC eventually identified the cause of the men's illness: a previously unknown virus in the phlebovirus family now dubbed Heartland virus.

According to the CDC, ongoing investigations have found six more cases of Heartland virus disease, bringing the total number of known cases to eight. They say all of the case-patients were white men over the age of 50. Their symptoms started in May to September and included fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, headache, nausea or muscle pain. Four of the six new cases were hospitalized. One patient, who suffered from other health conditions, died. It is not known if Heartland virus was the cause of death or how much it contributed to his death.

Five of the six new cases reported tick bites in the days or weeks before they fell ill.

Recent CDC studies have shown the Heartland virus is carried by Lone Star ticks, which are primarily found in the southeastern and eastern United States. Additional studies are looking to confirm whether ticks can spread the virus to people and to learn what other insects or animals may be involved in the transmission cycle.

The CDC developed the blood tests used to confirm the new cases of Heartland virus disease. CDC teams are working to further validate these tests and develop additional tests.

There is no specific treatment, vaccine or drug for Heartland virus disease. Because it is caused by a virus, the disease also does not respond to antibiotics used to treat tick-borne bacterial infections such as Lyme disease. However, supportive therapies such as IV fluids and fever reducers can relieve some symptoms.

To reduce the risk of Heartland and other vector-borne diseases, the CDC recommends that people:

  • Avoid wooded and bushy areas with high grass and leaf litter
  • Use insect repellent when outdoors
  • Use products that contain permethrin on clothing
  • Bathe or shower as soon as possible after coming indoors to wash off and more easily find ticks that are crawling on you
  • Conduct a full-body tick check after spending time outdoors
  • Examine gear and pets, as ticks can "ride" into the home and attach to a person later

Crowley's Ridge Nature Center Director Shaun Merrell stresses the importance of tick bite prevention, such as using bug spray that contains DEET, wearing light-colored clothing and tucking pants inside socks.

"A lot of that stuff you'll want to spray on your clothes and inside your boots before you put your clothes on because it has such a high concentration of DEET in it."

Merrell says there are products homeowners can purchase for their yards.

"Put out different products and granular products on the lawn around where you're going to walk, around where your dogs are and that will help keep ticks and chiggers away," he said.

Infectious disease practitioner Dr. Carl Abraham encourages people to ask for help with a full body check after being outside.

"Underneath the arms, the creases of the neck, between your toes and between your buttock cheeks."

He cautions not to underestimate the importance of taking precautions even though no cases of Heartland virus have been reported in Arkansas.

"We are an epicenter for ticks and tick bites," he said. "We don't know everything and it would not be surprising to find that Heartland virus is widespread within this region."

Click here for tips from the CDC on tick removal.

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