Emory University researchers reported that a deadly tick-borne virus is spreading across the United States and has now been detected in Georgia. The virus, which was first identified in the state of Missouri in 2009, has been found in the Midwest and Southeast. The genetic footprint of the virus identified in Georgia differs from that found in other states. Researchers said this could mean that the virus is mutating rapidly.
According to Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec, the study’s lead author and associate professor of environmental sciences at Emory University in Atlanta, “Heartland virus is an emerging virus native to the U.S. There is no formal testing or treatment for the virus, and the level of transmission to humans is unknown. Our findings contribute to the understanding of a pathogen that is poorly known and that could become a public health problem as people spend more time outdoors either recreationally or occupationally.”
The impact of the Heartland virus
In 2009, two men residing in Missouri were hospitalized with diarrhea, muscle pains, high fevers, low counts of platelets and white blood cells, and other symptoms of tick-borne diseases. The previously undetected and unseen sickness was called Heartland by researchers, and it was thought to be common in lone star ticks.
Since its discovery, over 50 cases of the Heartland virus were detected in at least 11 states across the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In fact, many of these infections were so severe that people had to be hospitalized. A few patients with chronic diseases passed away from the infection.
According to CDC reports, the Heartland virus has so far been found in Illinois, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and Tennessee.
What is causing the Heartland virus to spread?
The lone star tick, which carries the Heartland virus, could be spreading as climate change results in warmer winters, which, in turn, enables the tick to increase its range. As more people have started to live close to wooded areas, they are far more likely to come into contact with animals that carry the virus.
To get an idea of just how pervasive the virus is in Georgia, the team of researchers collected almost 10,000 ticks. Investigators found that about one in 2,000 ticks carried the deadly Heartland virus. Similar conditions have helped spread Lyme disease, which is another tick-borne illness.
Vazquez-Prokopec, however, is doubtful that the Heartland will become as widespread and common as Lyme. He stated, “This is a virus that likely has a shorter infection period than Lyme. Plus, the reservoirs are unknown. Other viruses transmitted by ticks (Powassan) have never been linked to the number of human cases such as Lyme.”