New tick-borne virus threatens Missouri farmers

A new virus has reared its head in Missouri, and has now independently infected two men who reside 60 miles apart from each other. According to NPR, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are calling this virus the “Heartland virus” due to location and its discoverer Dr. Scott Folk at the Heartland Regional Medical Center. Ticks are the suspected bearers of the virus, but CNN quotes CDC researcher William Nicholson as saying the carriers could be sandflies or mosquitoes.

Ticks may be the cause of a new virus found in Missouri. Graphic by Caitlin Lewis.

According to The New England Journal of Medicine, symptoms of the virus include fever, fatigue, diarrhea, thrombocytopenia, and leukopenia. In the two discovered cases so far, onset of symptoms occurred five to seven days after the tick bites. The Huffington Post reports that one man was bitten only once, while the other was bitten as many as 20 times. The men did recover, but were hospitalized for several weeks.

As of Sept. 1, 2012, these two cases are the only known cases of the Heartland virus in the world. The CDC expects more cases will be found over a wider geographic range than what has been demonstrated so far. Researchers are conducting an epidemiological study in western Missouri to identify possible cases of infection, and they also plan to examine the wild deer and turkey populations in Autumn.

So far there is no information regarding how the virus is transmitted or if it can be passed from person to person, but researchers are working to find a definite answer. Additionally, none of the victims’ family members or caregivers have reported symptoms that would indicate infection.

Both victims are farmers; one is 57 years old and reportedly “healthy” and the other is 67 years old with type II diabetes.

While the virus is a member of the phlebovirus family – which contains over 70 members – it is one of only two phleboviruses that can be spread by ticks. Research suggests the virus may be a cousin to Sever Fever with Thrombocytopenia Virus, a deadly virus found in China. Another suspected relative is the Bhanja virus, which infects mammals, birds and reptiles in Asia, Africa and Europe.

Although the CDC says there is no cause for concern, common safety precautions should be taken. Nicholson suggests using repellent, checking often for tick bites and avoiding tick-infested areas such as wooded areas and areas with fallen leaves.  For Radford University students, a better Highlander experience is a healthy Highlander experience!