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New Human Tick-borne Virus Identified

Another day, another new infectious disease. In the midst of a record-breaking West Nile virus outbreak that has claimed 66 lives and infected almost 1,600 in 2012, we have a new threat from my least favorite external parasite, the tick. This newly discovered virus dubbed the “Heartland virus” is yet another reason to protect you and your pet from ticks this fall.

The CDC is reporting that in 2009 two Missouri farmers fell sick after being bitten by ticks.  One man reported a single bite while the second estimated about 20 tick bites per day during a two-week period. Both initially experienced memory loss, decreased appetite, fever, diarrhea, and low platelet and white blood cell counts, all consistent with a relatively common tick-borne bacterial infection, ehrlichiosis. The first patient spent 10 days in the hospital while the other patient stayed 12 days. Both were treated with appropriate antibiotics but failed to get better. Eventually both improved but for one of the men the symptoms lingered. That’s what ultimately attracted the attention of the CDC.

The first patient, who recalled only a single tick bite, continued to have memory problems, decreased energy levels, and frequent headaches for the next two years. No one knew why. Meanwhile, a new tick-borne virus was identified in China late last year. Known as SFTSV, this infection shared the same clinical signs as those reported in the Missouri farmers. This led CDC researcher Dr. Laura McMullan to reopen those cases to search for a connection. Was it the same virus? A mutation? She needed to know because the Chinese were reporting mortality rates with their new disease as high as 12%.

Turns out she was right. The virus is related to SFSTV and demonstrates how little we understand about the unseen world of tiny ticks, parasitic insects, and the diseases they may carry. In the New England Journal of Medicine article in which the findings were published, the authors warn, “This virus could be a more common cause of human illness than is currently recognized.” Another good reason to avoid tick bites.

The Heartland virus takes its name because it is believed to be spread by ticks common in the Southeast. The lone star tick is the most common species of tick in Missouri. It’s also a common tick in North Carolina, the Southeast, and along the entire Atlantic coast. To date no ticks have been found carrying the Heartland virus. It’s unknown if the new disease can be spread from one person to another or even if the disease is definitively spread by tick bites or if another insect or factor is involved. The CDC published its early findings in order to help any patients bitten by ticks that fail to improve after antibiotic treatment.  At this point Heartland virus is not believed to carry a significant risk or death or serious illness. It does not appear to affect animals.

Now is the time to protect both you and your pet from ticks. Talk to your vet about a safe and effective tick preventive for your dog and cat. Wear long pants, use a tick repellent containing at least 20% DEET, and avoid high grass and wooded areas whenever possible to reduce your risk of tick bites.



Topical Confusion: Are You Really Protecting Your Pet?

Dr. Ernie Ward

Last week I had to deliver some bad news to a pet parent: her dog had heartworm disease. “Impossible!” she shrieked. “I give him his medication each month.” I reviewed the fact that we hadn’t dispensed nor written a prescription for her dog’s heartworm preventive in over two years. “I don’t buy it from you. I buy it at the store.” She had made a fatal mistake for her dog in an attempt to save a few bucks. She was buying the wrong preventive.

First of all, I didn’t fault her for trying to save money. We all need to save wherever and whenever we can these days. Where she, and millions like her, went wrong is not involving their veterinarian. This lady was administering a topical flea preventive incorrectly believing it protected against deadly heartworm disease. A big mistake that may cost her dog its life.

This spring you’ll be inundated with a plethora of products promising protection for your pets from fleas and ticks. What they’re not protecting your dogs and cats against is heartworm disease. Heartworm disease is transmitted by infected mosquitoes. Dogs, cats, and ferrets are most susceptible but other species, including humans, can be accidentally infected with heartworm larvae. In our area every dog and cat, even if they live indoors, needs to be protected year-round (Remember those wonderful 70-degree days back in December and January? The mosquitoes do.).

If you bought a preventive without a prescription you’re not protecting against heartworm. The drugs that prevent heartworm are prescription medications governed by the FDA as opposed to topical flea and tick preparations regulated by the EPA. This is an important distinction because heartworm meds are subject to more stringent testing and safety oversight than flea treatments. This is why the EPA has begun issuing “black box” warnings on topical flea and tick solutions; there were so many reported side effects and reactions in 2010 and 2011.

Back to the saving money part. Most vets, including me, have made great efforts to keep heartworm preventives affordable. How much do mine cost, you ask? Whatever you can buy it for from the big online pet sites. It’s been that way since 1999 (when the economy was much better). I’ve always been committed to providing affordable preventive pet healthcare. That may not always be the best business sense, but it always seems to me like the right thing to do. Whenever clients call and say they can buy preventives cheaper elsewhere, we find they haven’t asked how much ours cost. If you’re thinking of buying pet supplies online, I ask you to consider spending your money locally. Your vet employs neighbors, church members and valuable constituents of Brunswick County. If your vet’s price is less than five dollars difference, help our local economy instead of New York, Florida, or California. Unemployment in our area tops 13 percent; we’re all part of the solution.

Make sure you’re protecting your dogs and cats properly this year. And help our local economy recover. Lord knows, we need everyone’s help.