Tick-borne virus transmitted in Georgia, study finds

About 50 cases have been identified in 11 mostly midwestern states.

The Heartland virus, a potentially fatal tick-borne virus first identified in Missouri in 2009, has taken root in Georgia, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday.

The virus isn’t passed by breathing, but by blood. The Georgia discovery came when Emory University researchers found Heartland virus here in lone star ticks, a type of small tick that is prevalent in the state.

Scientists already knew that one Georgia person had been infected, but they couldn’t be sure where. They also knew the Heartland virus is harbored by lone star ticks. The study’s findings make it likely that the Georgia patient caught the virus from a tick bite in Georgia, said Emory University Associate Professor Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec, whose lab worked on the research.

Since Heartland virus was identified in 2009, about 50 cases have been identified in 11 mostly midwestern states, many of them severe, according to the CDC. However, testing for Heartland virus is not common, so the people who get diagnosed tend to be those who are already very sick and have doctors hunting for causes. Scientists suspect there have been many more cases that are mild or moderate and never get noticed.

That Georgia patient, of Baldwin County, died from the virus. However, Vazquez-Prokopec said, the job now “is not to raise panic, but to say that this is a virus that, for those individuals with some health conditions, could be lethal,” he said.

“We assume that there’s a large number of people that might be getting exposed and aren’t having symptoms that are so serious,” he said. “The best we can do is to protect ourselves against tick bites, until we know we have a better a better idea of how serious it is.”

That means when going into the woods or long grass, protect the skin with socks and long pants, in order to prevent ticks from jumping on to the skin. Then when emerging from the woods, check the skin and behind the knees for ticks. The worst time for the ticks is from spring through summer and fall.

This is a lone star tick collected in Georgia for research on the Heartland virus.  (PHOTO courtesy of Vazquez-Prokopec laboratory)

Credit: contributed

icon to expand image

Credit: contributed

It’s also possible to get the virus by handling blood from an infected animal. White-tailed deer in Georgia have been found with antibodies to heartland virus.

With lone star ticks, the adult female develops a dot on its back, leading to the name “lone star” for both males and females. The ticks can be as small as a sesame seed or a grain of wheat.

Vazquez-Prokopec’ researchers found Heartland virus in about 1 out of every 2,000 ticks they collected. However, there are a lot of ticks out there, since one female can lay thousands of eggs at once. While they looked at Jones, Baldwin and Putnam counties for the study just published, they now plan to expand their research to 40 Georgia sites.

The goal of their research is to get ahead of the possibility that Heartland virus might cross over to another type of tick, the explosively invasive Asian longhorned tick, which is just now invading Georgia and might meet up with the lone star tick.