A new virus has appeared in 6 US states and is spreading rapidly. Experts need to learn everything about Heartland soon, in case it turns out to be a big deal.
In the study, published in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) journal Emerging Infectious Diseases , a team of experts at Emory University found a significant increase in the Heartland virus in the states. The new work adds to evidence of the virus in ticks, warning it can spread geographically and from one organism to another.
Emerging infectious disease
According to Eurek Alert , the authors publish genetic analysis of viral samples, isolated from ticks in central Georgia. According to Associate Professor Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec, Emory University, Heartland is an emerging and poorly understood infectious disease. The authors are actively learning about this virus before it becomes a bigger problem.
The study detected Heartland in 3 different patient samples of Lone Star Tick ticks. They are collected in different geographical areas, at different times, including the pupal and adult stages of ticks.
The results of genetic analysis of three virus samples showed that their sequences completely matched. However, the genomes of these samples differed from those found outside the United States. According to Professor Vazquez-Prokopec, this proves that Heartland can develop very quickly in different geographical locations. The second hypothesis is that they will be specific to each habitat.
The data in the new study raise concerns that there will be more vectors for this virus, besides the Lone Star Tick tick. Heartland was first discovered in Missouri in 2019 after two local men were hospitalized with high fever, diarrhea, muscle pain, low platelets, and white blood cells. In addition, they experienced other symptoms similar to tick-borne diseases.
The researchers quickly discovered that these two patients were infected with a new and very mysterious virus. They named it Heartland, then found its tracks on the Lone Star Tick. Further studies found anti-viral antibodies in blood samples from deer and some other wild mammals.
Since it was first detected, there have been more than 50 cases of this virus infection in the whole US so far. The patients appeared in 11 states from the Midwest to the Southeast, with a particular concentration in states like Missouri, Alabama, Illinois, Kansas and New York.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) currently records 18 cases of this virus infection from 2017 to now. In particular, many patients have been infected with the virus recently.
One of the best known tick-borne diseases is Lyme. The disease is transmitted by deer ticks. The main reservoir of bacteria is white-footed mice. Tick larvae can become infected when they feed on the blood of rats and other mammals. Once infected, the larvae develop into pupae and adult ticks, which then jump to other hosts, including deer and humans.
Based on the complex transmission cycle of Lyme disease, scientists raise many questions about how Heartland “jumps” between different species and hosts.
The authors also found that the genome of Heartland was quite similar to the virus that causes thrombocytopenia syndrome virus (SFTSV) caused by Dabie bandavirus. Cases of this syndrome appeared in China in 2011 and many other Asian regions.
People infected with Heartland develop high fever, diarrhea, muscle/joint pain, thrombocytopenia, and acute and possibly life-threatening leukopenia. Photo: Unplash.
According to the CDC, patients infected with Heartland often experience fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, headache, nausea, diarrhea, and muscle or joint pain. Thrombocytopenia, acute white blood cell count are also quite characteristic. Many cases are so severe that they require hospitalization and some have died. Most recover completely. However, some older people have passed away. However, the actual burden of disease caused by this virus is still uncertain.
The worrying thing is that we don’t have a test to detect this virus, unless the patient is hospitalized and is sequenced to find the cause. There is also no vaccine to prevent or cure the disease. We seem to be following the trail of the “invisible enemy”. The only thing doctors can do is to use drugs to treat symptoms in patients, similar to how we treat Covid-19.
Meanwhile, another work discovered a resident in Baldwin County, Georgia, USA, died in 2005 of an unspecified illness. It prompted scientists to collect serum samples over the years from white-tailed deer in the state. The results show that deer in central Georgia have been exposed to the Heartland virus since at least 2001.
The Lone Star Tick is also scientifically known as Amblyomma americanum. They are characterized by a white spot on their backs, occurring most commonly in Georgia and wooded areas throughout the Southeast, East, and Midwest of the United States. They are very small in size. At the pupal stage, this tick is about the size of a sesame seed, less than 6.35 cm in diameter when fully grown.
Researchers at Emory University are expanding the scope of the study. They will collect ticks across Georgia for testing and spatial analysis to understand factors that may increase the risk of Heartland virus infection.
Climate change is driving warmer and shorter winters, increasing the chance for certain species of ticks to breed more frequently and expanding their ranges. This is also what experts fear, if neglected, this virus will flare up and form a dangerous epidemic.
“Ticks are very scary. We have no way of controlling it and it is always a vector of dangerous diseases. The recent increase in Lone Star Tick infections represents a major threat to health that many people do not realize,” said Professor Steph Bellman, co-author, stressed.