The potentially deadly Heartland virus has been found to be spreading across the country. The virus was first identified in Missouri in 2009. Researchers from Emory University have now found the tick-borne virus in Georgia. A cause of concern for researchers is that the virus appears to be rapidly mutating, given that its genetic fingerprint in Georgia differs from what was found in other states. 

Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec, the lead author of the study, stated it isn’t possible to say just how many people have been infected with the Heartland virus because no nationwide research has been conducted so far. The study was published in the online journal Emerging Infectious Diseases on March 16. 

No treatment yet for Heartland virus

Infectious disease expert Dr. Marc Siegal advises healthcare professionals treating tick-borne illnesses that don’t react positively to antibiotics to suspect Heartland. He said, “We don’t have a treatment, and Heartland can be confused with something more treatable. So if I think somebody has ehrlichiosis or Lyme, I treat them with doxycycline, and if they don’t get better, maybe I would think of this as a possibility.”

Siegal predicts that Heartland will be detected in more places as the tick population continues to increase. Still, he expects it to remain more or less rare. He stated, “The deer tick, which carries Lyme disease, is the one I worry about the most. But we should be aware of this tick because it’s a growing problem.”

Symptoms of Heartland virus infection

Heartland is a virus that can cause serious symptoms in those infected, but, unfortunately, it has no known treatment. Flu-like symptoms, such as fever, headache and nausea, fatigue, diarrhea, joint or muscle pain, and decreased appetite, are common in most infected people.

The symptoms are often similar to those caused by other tick-borne illnesses like anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis. The CDC has warned that it can take up to two weeks after infection for the signs and symptoms to start appearing. 

How to protect yourself from tick bites

To protect yourself against the Heartland virus, the CDC recommends:

  • Know where ticks are most likely to be found. They typically live in grassy or wooded areas and even on the fur of animals. 
  • Use insect repellent if you live in an area prone to ticks.
  • Treat your clothing and any gear you have with products that contain at least 0.5% permethrin.
  • Check your pets for ticks from time to time.
  • Make sure to shower after being outdoors.