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Midwest Ticks Show Signs of 'Heartland Virus'

Recently discovered disease struck two Missouri farmers

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Randy Dotinga

HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, July 22 (HealthDay News) -- While a type of tick-borne disease known as Heartland virus appears to be extremely rare -- only two cases in humans have been reported so far -- a new study finds it is lurking in ticks in northwestern Missouri.

The researchers haven't issued anything other than the usual warnings about avoiding contact with ticks that may harbor disease. Still, "there's another tick-borne pathogen out there to be careful of," said study author Harry Savage, a medical entomologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Heartland virus is indeed rare, he said, but reports on it may be spotty because a test for it is not readily available.

Lyme disease is the most well-known infection spread by ticks, but there are several others. The infection known as Heartland virus -- so named because it was discovered in the middle of the country -- is unusual because it's spread by a virus, not a bacteria.

Two farmers from northwestern Missouri were diagnosed with the illness in 2009 after coming in contact with ticks. The virus causes "fever, headaches, mild diarrhea and low white blood [cell] counts," Savage said.

Both of the men were hospitalized with severe illness but recovered.

Last year, researchers fanned out across northwestern Missouri -- to the north and northwest of Kansas City -- and gathered a whopping 56,428 ticks at 12 locations, including at the farms of the infected men. The ticks were caught in the wild and taken off horses and dogs.

The researchers report that they found the virus in a species known as the lone star tick. The infection rate was about one in 500 ticks, Savage said.

It appears that the ticks became infected at the larval stage when they bit an animal that harbored the virus. Then the ticks reached the nymph stage and looked for blood meals from, say, humans, Savage added.

Investigators identified the first cases with the help of the CDC. Now, Savage said, researchers are working on a test to identify the virus in infected people.

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