New 'Heartland Virus' is discovered in Missouri

Aug 30, 2012

A new viral disease has been found in Missouri. That’s according to a report out of the current issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. The virus, named the Heartland virus, was first observed in two northwest Missouri farmers. Scott Folk is the Director of Infectious Diseases at Heartland Regional Medical Center in St. Joseph, and is a co-author on the study. He first diagnosed the two farmers with a bacterial disease called erlichiosis, which symptoms include fever, muscle fatigue, headache and nausea.

“But these two patients, what set them apart was the fact they were very slow to get better. It took a while for their fevers to resolve and for their white blood cell count to come up, their platelet count to come up, and their liver tests to improve," said Folk.

As was the case with other suspected erlichiosis patients, Folk passed along blood samples to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta for diagnostic testing. William Nicholson is a microbiologist with the CDC, and helped perform the tests.

"And we did not obtain Erlichia isolates as we had hoped. However, we did see changes in the cell culture that suggested we had something else," said Nicholson.

That something else turned out to be a new virus that was genetically related to others that spread through ticks and other insects. Indeed, both farmers suffered tick bites shortly before they were hospitalized. But Folk says more testing need to be done before any conclusions are made.

"Until we know a little bit more about the symptoms, it’s hard to predict what patients could expect in the future," said Folk. "I think what we’re telling them right now is if they have been bitten by ticks and they develop symptoms, the first step is to see their health care provider, who could evaluate them, and if need be, contact the state health department for a possible referral of specimens onto the CDC for further analysis."

Both Folk and Nicholson say they’re working to learn more about how the disease is transmitted, and about which animals that maintain the disease in nature.