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Aclose up of a Long Star tick on a finger.

AUBURN UNIVERSITY, Ala. – A rare illness has been traced back to a species of tick commonly found in Alabama. Heartland virus has come into the spotlight as a potential threat to the health of outdoor enthusiasts. However, there is not an immediate cause for alarm.

What is Heartland virus?

Heartland virus was first discovered in Missouri in 2009 and has been detected consistently in Lone Star ticks. This insect is native to the southeastern United States and serves as a vector for the virus.

The disease has been diagnosed in 11 states including Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee. It is unknown if Heartland virus has spread to other areas of the United States. As of this publication, there are no confirmed human infections in Alabama.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed 50 cases nationwide of the tick-borne virus as of last year. Symptoms of the disease include fever, decreased appetite, fatigue, headache, nausea, diarrhea and muscle/joint pain.

According to the CDC, it can take up to two weeks for these symptoms to appear after a tick bite. In some cases, hospitalizations can occur because of severe symptoms in some individuals.

The Lone Star Tick

Adult Lone Star ticks are easily identifiable by a white or sometimes cream-colored mark on their dorsal surface. Like most ticks, they feed on the blood of a host.

Lone Star Tick

Lone Star Tick

“It is the most abundant tick species in Alabama,” said Alabama Cooperative Extension System Entomologist Xing Ping Hu. “Lone Star ticks carry and transmit various diseases, however it does not transfer Lyme disease

Illnesses transmitted by Lone Star ticks may include the following:

  • Ehrlichiosis – an uncommon, flu-like illness that affects humans of all ages as well as deer, etc.
  • Tularemia ­­­– a disease that mainly affects rabbits and rodents by affecting skin, lymph nodes, eyes and lungs.
  • Southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI) – an infection of the skin in humans. Symptoms may include the presence of a rash that appears like the “bullseye” rash seen in some Lyme disease cases.
  • Rickettsiosis – A bacteria similar to Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF), but the bacteria Lone Star ticks carry is not the one causing RMSF. Rickettsiosis causes many of the same symptoms, and it presents the appearance of an inoculation eschar (a dark scab). Eschars are not common in RMSF.

Keep Calm and Protect

Spreading public awareness rather than panic is the primary message that people should adhere to in 2022. Widespread transmission of any of these diseases is not likely, and you are your own best defense.

“Be aware that just because ticks carry pathogens for viruses, it does not mean it will transmit it,” Hu said. “It requires research to approve or disapprove of an infection.”

A preventative bug spray is crucial for repelling ticks as well as other unwanted insects. So, make sure to spray clothes and shoes while limiting direct contact with skin.

The most common thoroughfare for ticks is pets. A tick can easily embed themselves under fur or hair, making it difficult to see them. Therefore, check yourself as well as others and furry friends for ticks after spending time in the forest and other outdoor settings. A tick requires removal from the skin in less than 24 hours to prevent disease transmission.

More Information

Be mindful of the presence of pesky ticks this spring as seasonal projects and recreational activities increase. Routine checks for these insects are the best defense to such a small enemy. For more information on ticks and tick-borne illnesses, please visit the Alabama Extension website at www.aces.edu.

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