Georgia Ticks Found To Carry New, Potentially Deadly Virus

Ticks in Georgia have been found to carry a new and potentially fatal disease known as Heartland virus. Scientists from Emory University sampled thousands of lone star ticks across the state and found the virus was prevalent among the population.

Heartland virus is an emerging infectious disease. It was first identified in Missouri in 2009 and has subsequently been found in 11 states in the Midwest and Southeast. Over 50 cases of the virus have been confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with fatalities recorded among people with underlying health conditions.

The disease causes fever, diarrhea, muscle pain, headache, nausea and a loss of appetite. Many people who have been diagnosed with Heartland virus have had to be hospitalized.

In Georgia there has been one confirmed case that was discovered retrospectively. A patient had died from a mystery infection in 2005. Subsequent analysis showed he had died from the virus, with serum samples showing deer in the region had been exposed since at least 2001.

Lone star ticks are tiny creatures about a quarter of an inch wide. They can be recognized by a white spot on their backs. The species has been in Southeastern states for over a century but has been expanding its range. An article published in the NEJM in 2019 said it was being found in upper Midwestern and Northeastern states.

Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec, associate professor in Emory's Department of Environmental Sciences, has led a study into whether the virus is being carried in lone star ticks in Georgia.

lone star tick
Stock image of a lone star tick. The species has been found to carry Heartland virus in Georgia. Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

He and his team collected and analyzed around 10,000 ticks and found the virus in three different specimen samples. They separated specimens into groups and then crushed them up and washed them with a solution that tested for the presence of Heartland virus.

Findings indicate that around one in every 2,000 lone star ticks in the area the samples were taken had the virus. Their research is published in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

"Heartland is an emerging infectious disease that is not well understood," Vazquez-Prokopec said in a statement. "We're trying to get ahead of this virus by learning everything that we can about it before it potentially becomes a bigger problem."

Vazquez-Prokopec told Newsweek that Heartland virus appears to have evolved over thousands of years. "As it happens with many emerging infectious diseases, there is no clear understanding of the entire transmission cycle; which ticks are the vectors, what animals serve as reservoirs—small mammals? birds?—or how it persists in nature from year to year," he said. "Research like ours provides important bits of this complex puzzle."

Vazquez-Prokopec said he does not believe Heartland virus will become as prevalent as the better-known tick-borne virus Lyme disease. However, he said the true burden of human infection is unclear, as there is no formal diagnosis or reporting. There have probably been far more than 50 cases in the U.S. since the disease first emerged, he said.

"There is no reason to panic," he said. "Our goal with the study was to describe an emerging infectious disease for which we know very little. The main point for people in Georgia and anywhere where the lone-star tick lives is that we are entering the Spring. Ticks are very active and we show that there is a risk of ticks biting people and heartland being transmitted. The lone-star tick is the tick that bites most people in the South. As people venture out recreationally, we have to remind them about the importance of preventing tick bites."

What could be of concern, however, is the relationship between lone star ticks and Asian longhorned ticks, which arrived in the U.S. in 2017/2018. This species has now spread to 17 states and carries a disease called severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome virus (SFTSV). This virus is genetically similar to Heartland virus, so there is a risk they could cross paths.

"Many researchers share the concern that, as the Asian longhorned tick invades areas where the lone-star tick is present, they can vector pathogens such as Heartland, amplifying its transmission and changing its ecology," Vazquez-Prokopec said. "If this occurs, perhaps Heartland can become a bigger problem due to this new tick species changing the ecology of transmission."