The recent death of a Delaware County man from complications of Heartland disease has many people concerned about how to protect themselves from ticks this summer.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s not yet known how people become infected with the disease, but recent studies suggest that ticks – specifically Lone Star ticks – may transmit the virus.
Kay Creighton-Hays, health education supervisor for the Cherokee County Health Department, said there have been no reported or confirmed Heartland virus cases in Cherokee County.
“Since 2009, when the first case was identified in Missouri, there have been on 10 confirmed cases, including two deaths,” said Creighton-Hays. “The 10 cases included eight in Missouri, one in Tennessee and one in Oklahoma in Delaware County.”
The virus is still relatively new, and the CDC and CCHD are still learning about it, but all patients diagnosed with the virus became ill between May and September.
The Delaware County man who fell victim to the disease was older and spent a significant time outside, and he had a history of tick bites, said Creighton-Hays.
“Anyone who spends significant time outdoors is at higher risk of getting a tick bite,” said Creighton-Hays. “Certainly anyone with any co-morbidities or compromised immune system will be more vulnerable to a virus such as this. It is important to get supportive care for symptoms as soon as possible.”
Symptoms of the Heartland virus include fever, fatigue, headaches, muscle aches, loss of appetite, bruising easily, nausea and diarrhea.
The CDC indicates that Lone Star ticks can be quite aggressive and fed on both humans and animals and can be brought into the home by pets. The saliva from the Lone Star tick can be irritating, and bite sites can become red or uncomfortable, but this does not necessarily indicate an infection. The saliva produced by Lone Star ticks also has an advantage: it has been shown to kill borrelia, or Lyme disease.
“Anyone suspecting they may have been exposed to the Heartland virus should consult their health care provider for proper diagnosis, especially if symptoms occur within 14 days of possible exposure,” said Creighton-Hays.
Preventing bites from ticks and mosquitoes is key to preventing this and other diseases that may be transmitted by these insects. The Cherokee County Health Department recommends the following precautions:
• Use insect repellents on clothing and exposed skin, and follow package instructions.
• Wear long sleeves and pants; tuck pants into boots to reduce tick access to skin.
• Avoid bushy and wooded areas where ticks can be transferred onto skin.
• Perform thorough tick checks after spending time outdoors and daily following time outdoors.
Information obtained from the CDC indicates there is no specific treatment for Heartland virus. Supportive therapy can treat some symptoms, and some patients may need to be hospitalized for intravenous fluids and treatment for pain or fever.
Roger Williams, agriculture educator for the Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service, said yards can be treated for ticks, but the insecticide available these days is not as effective.
“[The EPA] took diazinon off the market,” said Williams. “The active ingredient in tick granules now is bifenthrin, and is what they’re using.”
According to the National Pesticide Information Center, bifenthrin is an insecticide in the pyrethroid family, which comes from chrysanthemum flowers.
Williams said the best way to avoid coming in contact with ticks is to avoid tall grass.
“I get asked every year, it seems, if ticks are going to be more prevalent this year because of one thing or another,” said Williams. “If you’re out, and the grass is tall, ticks are prevalent. I don’t think we’ll have fewer ticks because we had a cold winter. Ticks are directly related to tall grass exposure.”
According to the CDC, of the seven species of ticks that have the potential to carry disease, five can be found in this region, including the American dog tick, which can cause Rocky Mountain spotted fever and tularemia; the black-legged tick, associated anaplasmosis, babesiosis and Lyme disease; the brown dog tick, also associated with Rocky Mountain spotted fever; the Gulf Coast tick, which can cause Ricketts; and the Lone Star tick, which is associated with Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Heartland.
Williams said while these insects have the potential to carry disease, if someone finds one on his leg, it isn’t necessarily a crisis.
“You want to be aware of the potential for disease, but people don’t need to get hysterical over it,” said Williams.