Tick-borne diseases can prove fatal

Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Two northern Missouri men were recently diagnosed with a new type of tick-borne illness, the Heartland virus.

Although the men lived 60 miles apart from each other, both presented at area hospitals with high fevers, diarrhea, fatigue and a severe drop in the number of their white blood cells, which are immune cells that fight infection.

Because the illness was similar to bacterial infections, the administration of antibiotics had no impact on the illness.

Harry Savage, a medical entomologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Fort Collins, Colo., and his colleagues collected more than 7,000 tick nymphs in the Missouri woods near where the men lived and crushed them to be analyzed for genetic information.

They found that about one in 500 of members of lone star ticks carries the Heartland virus, which is related to a life-threatening virus recently discovered in China, which resulted in severe fever and a lower than normal number of blood cell fragments.

There are no treatments for Heartland virus, which causes low white blood cell counts, fever, chills, diarrhea and other symptoms. Both patients recovered after nearly two weeks in the hospital.

Summertime is when ticks are most prevalent in the Ozarks, but they can also continue to move and feed during fall and throughout early winter.

The Heartland virus is just the newest tick-borne pathogen that can cause human disease. Other common tick-borne illnesses in Missouri are:

* Ehrlichiosis is transmitted to humans by the lone star tick and found primarily in the south central and eastern U.S.

* Lyme disease is transmitted by the black-legged tick in the northeastern U.S. and upper Midwestern U.S. and the western black-legged tick along the Pacific coast.

* Tularemia is transmitted to humans by the dog tick, the wood tick, and the lone star tick. Tularemia occurs throughout the U.S.

Many of these illnesses can prove to be debilitating or even fatal.

If bitten, the sooner ticks are removed, the less likely they are to spread disease. Wash the area of the tick bite with a lot of warm water and dish washing soap.

If a bite becomes irritated, apply an antibiotic ointment, such as bacitracin or polymyxin B sulfate, and cover it with an adhesive bandage. The ointment will keep the bite from sticking to the bandage.

Watch and seek treatment for flu-like symptoms, if a rash, sore or skin infection develop, especially if the symptoms become severe or more frequent.

To prevent tick bites, apply an insect repellent according to the directions on the label, particularly when applying repellent to children.

Cover as much skin as possible when working or playing in grassy or wooded areas. Wear a hat, a long-sleeved shirt, and long pants with the legs tucked into your socks. Remember, it is easier to spot ticks on light-colored clothes. If clothing becomes infested with ticks, put it in a clothes dryer for 10 to 15 minutes to kill the ticks.

Wear gloves when handling animals or work in the woods.

Take steps to control tick infestations around lawns, gardens and recreation areas near the home. Clear leaves, brush, tall grasses, woodpiles, and stone fences from around the home and edges of the yard or garden to help reduce the tick and rodent populations that ticks depend on.

Remove plants that attract deer and use barriers to keep deer and the ticks they may carry out of the yard.

Treating yards with chemicals that kill ticks is often effective but exposes children and pets to chemicals that may not be safe. Alternative lawn treatment include non-chemical or environmentally safe methods.

Stay away from tick-infested areas.

For more information, visit the CDC website at http://www.cdc.gov/ticks.

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