Deadly Tick-Borne Virus That Can Be Transmitted Person-to-Person Reemerges in China

A deadly tick-borne virus has reemerged in China, with experts warning it can be transmitted from human to human.

According to the state-backed newspaper the Global Times, 37 people in the Jiangsu Province have been diagnosed with Severe Fever with Thrombocytopenia Syndrome (SFTS) so far this year. SFTS is a disease caused by bunyavirus.

Sheng Jifang, an infectious disease expert with the First Affiliated Hospital of Zhejiang University School of Medicine, told the newspaper the virus can be spread by ticks and infected animals, and by people via blood, wounds and the respiratory tract.

The CNA news channel reported 23 people have been infected in the Anhui Province. Five of these patients died, while two more deaths from the virus were recorded in Zhejiang Province. CNA said a woman in her 60s in Jiangsu Province was diagnosed with the virus after suffering from a fever, coughing and fatigue.

The novel bunyavirus was first discovered in 2009 in the Henan and Anhui provinces. Fatality rates vary between 1 and 5 percent, with older people more likely to die. "The early symptoms are fatigue and fever; sometimes there will be a rash," Sheng said.

According to a 2011 NEJM correspondence about the novel bunyavirus, scientists initially thought the virus could not be transmitted from person to person. However, a cluster of SFTS cases was identified that appeared to show this route of transmission was possible.

Scientists at the Jiangsu Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention found a case where a 59-year-old man appeared to have passed the virus to his son-in-law, with laboratory tests showing both had been infected by the bunyavirus. While the father could have come in contact with ticks carrying it, the son-in-law had no contact with potential vectors or hosts. He had, however, had contact with bloody secretions and blood that his father-in-law had vomited.

Since 2009, there have been several outbreaks of SFTS, with cases normally recorded in China between March and November when ticks are active. In 2013, cases were also reported in Japan and South Korea, and in 2017 a woman in Japan died after a cat infected with the virus bit her.

Leng Peien, from Shanghai's Municipal Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told the Global Times that most of the recent cases in China were the result of direct transmission via ticks bites. Sheng said people should avoid regions where ticks may be present, such as bushes or the jungle. "Fortunately, ticks can't fly. It should be safe just to avoid their territory," she told the newspaper.

Stock image of a tick. At least 60 people have been infected with a deadly tick-borne virus in China. iStock