Heartland Virus: Tick-Borne Illness Discovered In Missouri

A never-before-seen tick-borne illness was responsible for sickening two farmers in Missouri in 2009, according to a new report from government researchers.

The virus has been dubbed the "Heartland virus" because it was found in America's so-called heartland, and because it was identified by a doctor at the Heartland Regional Medical Center, NPR reported.

Initially, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers thought that the men were infected with the bacteria Ehrlichia chaffeensis, but lab results came back negative for that, they wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine study. They found that the virus is actually part of the genus phlebovirus. Phlebovirus is in the family of Bunyaviridae, which is also the family that the deadly rodent-borne hantavirus (which recently made headlines because of an outbreak in Yosemite National Park) is part of, NBC News reported.

However, the new "Heartland virus" is the only other phlebovirus, aside from China's SFTSV (severe fever with thrombocytopenia syndrome virus), that can be spread by ticks, according to NBC News.

One man, age 57 at the time, had just one tick bite, while the other one, age 67 at the time, was bitten as many as 20 times a day, WebMD reported. They lived on different farms miles apart, and experienced symptoms of diarrhea, fatigue, memory loss, low platelet counts and fever.

Lone-star ticks are common in the area where the men are from, but researchers have been unable to find any of these ticks in the area that carry the virus, according to WebMD.

Even though these are the only two people in the world to have contracted this specific kind of virus, it could be more prevalent than is currently realized. "We expect to find new cases," Dr. William Nicholson, of the CDC, told NPR. "We expect this thing may be wider in geographic distribution than we currently know."