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With tick season quickly approaching, experts are urging caution after a potentially fatal tickborne illness was reported in Georgia.
According to a new study out of Emory University, the Heartland virus, which is typically found in the southern and Midwest regions, is now circulating in Georgia. The findings, published in Emerging Infectious Diseases, say the virus was detected in lone star ticks after a resident of Georgia died from the disease.
The study looked at nearly 10,000 lone star ticks between 2018-2019 in 26 sites close to where infected deer were captured as well as where the person died. Researchers found about 1 out of every 2,000 specimen collected had the Heartland virus.
“Heartland is an emerging infectious disease that is not well understood,” Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec, the senior author of the study, says 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.”
As experts continue to learn more about Heartland virus, they say it’s important for people to be aware of what the tick-borne disease is and how you can protect yourself.
What is the Heartland virus?
Heartland virus is transmitted by the bite of a lone star tick, which are mainly located in the Midwest and Southeast U.S.
Ticks are blood sucking bugs that range in colour and size and grow as they take in more blood.
The lone star tick is named for the distinctive white spot on its back, and is so small that you “may not feel them on you or even notice if you’ve been bitten by one,” according to a researcher of the Heartland virus study.
The Heartland virus was only discovered in Missouri in 2009 after two men were hospitalized with high fevers, fatigue, muscle pain and diarrhea.
Signs and symptoms of Heartland virus
It can take up to two weeks for symptoms to appear after an infected tick bite, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says.
Symptoms of Heartland virus are similar to other tick-borne illnesses. Someone who has been bitten by a lone star tick can experience the following:
Decrease in appetite
Muscle or joint pain
The CDC says many people are hospitalized because of their symptoms.
Dr. Scott Roberts, an infectious diseases doctor and assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine, says if anyone experiences these symptoms after being bitten by a tick they should seek a medical evaluation.
The expert notes identifying that someone has Heartland virus versus another tick-borne illness can be tricky because certain markers can only be identified through lab work.
“Most patients have decreased white blood cell count and decreased platelet count and then some people can have elevated liver tests and so sometimes that’s a clue,” he tells Yahoo Canada.
Where is Heartland virus typically found?
As of January 2021, the CDC says more than 50 cases of Heartland virus disease have been reported in states from the Midwestern to Southern United States, including Arkansas, Georgia, Kansas and Tennessee.
Of those 50 cases Roberts says a few older patients who died had underlying medical conditions while a majority of patients infected with Heartland virus recovered without any problems.
Has Heartland virus been detected in Canada?
There have been no human infections of Heartland virus in Canada to date — and Roberts says he sees no risk to Canadians at this point.
“I don’t think there’s a risk for Canadians unless they come to the areas of the United States where this tick-borne disease is endemic and get bit by a tick,” he explains. “Even with tick bites it remains an exceedingly rare disease in contrast to Lyme disease which is much, much more common and we see much more frequently.”
Even though no one has been infected by the virus in Canada, Roberts notes the tick has been detected in Ontario after infected deer were found in Maine.
“We know with climate change that ticks are over time moving more northward so it’s possible that this might be something to keep an eye on [in Canada] in the future,” Roberts says.
How is the virus different from other tick-borne diseases?
Although there are similarities between Heartland virus and other tick-borne diseases, one key area of differences is its treatment options. There is currently no vaccine or medications to prevent or treat the Heartland virus.
Roberts says typically the antibiotic Doxycycline responds to tick-borne diseases, but it cannot be used to treat this particular disease.
“I think the big difference with the Heartland virus, is that it’s a virus tick disease, instead of a bacteria that we commonly see like Ehrlichia or a parasitic tick-borne disease so because it is virus there really is no effective treatment against the Heartland virus,” Roberts says.
Protecting yourself from Heartland virus and other tick-borne illnesses
Amber Paulson, who conducted postdoctoral research on tick-borne illnesses at Queen’s University, says even though the Heartland virus isn’t currently a concern in Canada, Canadians should be aware of tick-related risks when heading outdoors.
“Other more common tick-borne diseases still pose an ever-growing risk in Canada, especially in areas where tick species are expanding their range and becoming more prevalent,” Paulson tells Yahoo Canada.
While you can be exposed to ticks year-round in Canada and the U.S., ticks are most abundant during the warmer months between April and September.
Ticks live in grassy, brushy or wooded areas and can even live on animals. Spending time in your backyard, or going on a hike or walk with your dog can bring you in close contact with ticks.
Experts say the best way to protect yourself against Heartland virus is by preventing tick bites.
Besides avoiding areas where ticks are known to be, you can use insect repellants or sprays containing 0.5% permethrin on your clothes and gear.
Checking your body for ticks after being outdoors, having a shower and examining your kids (if they were with you), pets and gear is also advised by experts.
If you do find a tick on your body, Paulson recommends keeping the tick and marking down the date of the bite to present to doctors.
“If any symptoms should occur (e.g., rash, fever, chills, pain) it is important that the person contacts their health care provider right away to seek treatment,” Paulson says.