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A man from Delaware County, Oklahoma, is the second person to die in the U.S. from the Heartland virus and only the tenth person ever to contract it, according to Oklahoma health officials on Tuesday. The virus, first discovered in Missouri in 2009, is most likely spread through bites from the lone star tick, which is prevalent in the eastern and southeastern U.S. The victim was over 65 years of age and died from complications of the virus, but no other details were made available. The first person to die from the tick-borne Heartland virus had other health concerns before developing the virus.
Although other cases of the illness have been diagnosed in both Tennessee and Missouri, the patients made a full recovery. All prior cases of the Heartland virus were noted in men aged 50 years or older who reported engaging in activities outside or having exposure to the outdoors, and were diagnosed between May through September. Epidemiologist Becky Coffman with the Oklahoma Health Department confirmed that the same was true in the case of the man who recently fell victim to the illness. Coffman suggests that when people feel ill after prolonged time spent outdoors, they should make sure to tell their doctors that they have had tick bites in the past so that their physicians can investigate whether a tick-borne illness is responsible for the symptoms. In addition, Coffman advises people who camp or spend time outdoors to check themselves at least one time per day for ticks.
Although the time between getting bit and experiencing symptoms is unknown in the Heartland virus, other illnesses caused by ticks generally have an incubation period of two weeks. Symptoms of the Heartland virus include bruising easily, diarrhea, fatigue, fever, headaches, loss of appetite, muscle aches and nausea. In addition, the patients were found to have low amounts of infection-fighting cells as well as a low numberc of cells that help in the blood-clotting process.
Currently, there is no vaccine of treatment for the illness, nor are there any routine tests for the virus, although diagnostic test protocol has been developed for investigational purposes. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is currently working on developing more tests to be used to accurately diagnose the illness. What is known is that, with all viruses, antibiotics are not useful against the Heartland virus. Treatment to date has involved treating symptoms and, when necessary, giving IV fluids during a hospital stay.
Also unknown is whether animals can be infected or develop an illness from the Heartland virus, and studies are underway to find those answers. In the meantime, if livestock or pets develop concerning symptoms, a vet should be consulted.
Until more information is known about the Heartland virus, prevention is the best tool that can be used to fight it. The Oklahoma Heath Department recommends that long-sleeved shirts and pants be worn when outside, as well as the use of insect repellents. When outdoors, it is best to avoid bushes and woods, as both areas are likely to contain ticks. When coming indoors, it is advised that thorough checks of the body and hair be performed.
By Jennifer Pfalz