Heartland virus confirmed in Illinois tick populations

By Connor Ciecko

The heartland virus, first discovered in 2009, has recently been confirmed in tick populations in both Kankakee and Williamson counties in Illinois after 2 residents were hospitalized in 2018. Ticks are already well documented as carriers of Lyme disease.

Symptoms of the tick-borne disease are flu-like and include fever, fatigue, decreased appetite and headache. Almost all patients exposed needed to be hospitalized and a large majority experienced a full recovery. As of June this year, the CDC reports more than 50 cases nationwide.

The virus is carried by a breed of tick called the Lone Star tick. They can be recognized by a bright colored spot or a ring of spots on their back and can be found in much of the Midwest and eastern United States. The Lone Star tick can also trigger an allergic reaction to meat products.

The new research on the Heartland Virus was led by the Illinois Natural History Survey at the university. The INHS is a division of the Prairie Research Institute, whose mission is to provide “research, scientific expertise, and objective data that benefit the environment, economy, and people of Illinois and beyond.”

Holly Tuten, an ecologist with the INHS, led a team to determine how the patients in 2018 contracted the virus and focused on collecting samples of Lone Star ticks for testing. A large number of the ticks collected tested positive for Heartland.

Because Heartland is viral, it does not show up on standard tests administered to patients who are tested for tick-borne illnesses. As this is a fairly new health concern in the state, Tuten urges people to be aware of the ticks and their behavior.

“We want to alert physicians and public health officials throughout Illinois that there is a fairly new pathogen out there that is a danger to public health,” she said. “I don’t want people to avoid the woods and parks. I just want them to be aware, so they can take concrete steps to reduce tick encounters and bites.”

Tick bites can be avoided by wearing bug spray that contains DEET, wearing light colored clothing so as to see the ticks easier, tucking pants into socks and to avoid areas that are known to be tick-infested. Removing clothes after returning from an outdoor excursion and putting them in the dryer on high heat for 10 minutes also kills ticks and is recommended by the CDC.

Photo by Fred Zwicky/Illinois News Bureau