Doctors discover terrifying new tick-borne virus

Aug 30, 2012

Scientists say they're excited over a discovery that they stumbled on thanks to two Missouri farmers. The revelation they are celebrating in isn’t an end to dry spells or an all-new irrigation method, though. It’s a mysterious, debilitating disease!

Researchers have diagnosed two farmers from separate towns in the American Midwest with the first ever identified cases of the Heartland virus, a just-discovered tick-borne infection that landed both men in the hospital with symptoms that include fever, fatigue and nausea.

"I was getting worse and worse," 60-year-old Robert Wonderly, one of only two known victims, tells NBC News, who adds that the doctors who identified the rare virus inside of his body “saved my life.”

Doctors fear that future cases — ones that go longer without being brought to the attention of a trained physician — could cause a severe drop in platelet count and, as a result, abnormal bleeding. If advanced enough, the next documented case of the Heartland virus very well could be deadly.

Needless to say, doctors are thrilled.

"We're pretty excited about it," Dr. William Nicholson of the US Centers for Disease Control tells Shots of the recent discovery he has the honor of being part of. "It's not every day that you find something new — particularly in the world of tick-borne diseases. We often work with what might be considered antique diseases, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever."

“This particular virus has never been detected before,” Dr. Nicholson adds to NBC. “This is unique to the world.”

The CDC has settled on the name for the new virus in honor of the synonymous region of the US Midwest where the disease developed, and also the Heartland Regional Medical Center in Missouri where Dr. Scott Folk helped discover the virus. Folk, says Nicholson, is respected throughout the CDC for his ability to spot things that often escape other infectious disease doctors.

"Whenever he sends us a sample, we pay attention because we're likely to find something," Nicholson says of his colleague. Now the two doctors are doubling up and working together to help track down other suspected victims of the Heartland virus. National Public Radio reports that researchers are now combing through thousands of samples taken from Missouri ticks that might offer them insight into the disease.

"We expect to find new cases," Dr. Nicholson adds to Shots. "We expect this thing may be wider in geographic distribution than we currently know."

The official findings from the CDC are published in the latest issue of the New England Journal of Medicine available now. The Heartland Regional Medical Center is expected to discuss the discovery in greater length at a press conference later this week.

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