- Heartland virus disease is a relatively new disease transmitted by ticks discovered in 2009.
- The virus is spread by lone star mites in the South and Midwest.
- Little is known about this disease, but experts are working to control ticks.
In 2009, Dr. Scott Falk treated two patients who became ill after a tick bite in western Missouri.
From Lyme disease to Rocky Mountain fever, most tick-borne illnesses begin with flu-like symptoms. Patients in Missouri experienced chills, fever and headaches, Folk NPR affiliate explained in a radio interview with KCUR.
The doctor thought they had erysipelas, a bacterial infection that was common in the area. However, the patients did not recover after admission
and laboratory tests revealed that they had a previously undiagnosed viral infection.
The new virus was the Heartland virus after the Heartland Regional Medical Center diagnosed the named patients. In the 13 years since its discovery, more than 50 cases of the Heartland virus have been reported in people in the southern and midwestern United States.
Not much is known about the virus compared to other tick-borne diseases, but doctors and scientists working in the area are collecting ticks to learn more.
“It’s not a pathogen that will take over the world, so there’s no reason to panic right now,” said Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopek, an associate professor at Emory University who led a team to study vector-borne diseases. “We’re trying to do something that scientists can’t do with COVID. We know as much as we can before this virus becomes a problem.”
A single star tick can spread the Heartland virus, among other diseases
Heartland virus cases have been reported in Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
According to the CDC, the virus is spread through the reflection of the only common star tick in the eastern United States. The tick is common in the southeastern states, but as temperatures warmed, it spread to the west and to Canada, Vasquez-Procopec told Insider.
A single star spot identified by a white dot on the back of an adult female tick is known to transmit other viruses and bacteria that cause common infections, such as erysipelas. Unlike black-footed mites, this species does not carry the bacteria that cause Lyme disease.
In Georgia, where Vazquez-Prokopek worked, only one Heartland virus was detected – a Georgia resident who died of an unknown disease in 2005 was diagnosed with death. Researchers at the Emory Procopec Laboratory in that district recently gathered about 10,000 people. One in every 2,000 single star mites collected from ticks carried the virus.
Symptoms Includes fever and muscle aches
The first patients of the Heartland virus detected in Missouri were hospitalized with fever, diarrhea, muscle aches, and low white blood cell and platelet counts.
According to the CDC, other symptoms of Heartland virus disease include fatigue, loss of appetite, headaches and dizziness. Since the disease is similar to many tick-borne infections and other viral infections, the only way to diagnose it is to see a health care provider who can test you.
According to infectious disease experts, the current burden of the disease is much higher than the official CDC figure of 50. In northwestern Missouri, researchers estimated that between 1% and 4% of the donor-based population had antibodies that confirmed exposure to the Heartland virus. In 2013, a blood test was performed. At that time, only two cases of the disease were confirmed in humans.
“So we know that 50 cases have not been evaluated because we did not cover the full spectrum of the disease,” Vazquez-Prokopek told Insider. “People may get sick and not go to the doctor, or they may not go to the doctor and get tested for the virus.”
Despite the threat of the Heartland virus, people should take precautions to avoid ticks when they go outside in the spring, summer and fall, he added.