Officials urge caution as tick season begins
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — State health officials and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday urged Oklahoma residents to be vigilant about checking for ticks after the death of a man who acquired the Heartland virus.
Oklahoma’s health department has released few details about the death, noting only that the patient was a man over 65 and from Delaware County in rural northeast Oklahoma. The man died from complications of the virus, which is found in the Lone Star tick and spread through tick bites.
The man is among 10 people known to have acquired the virus. The CDC has said another person died after acquiring the virus but had other health issues that may have factored into his death.
Little is known about the virus. Reported symptoms include fever, fatigue, headaches, muscle aches, appetite loss, nausea, bruising easily and diarrhea. There is no vaccine or drug to prevent or treat the illness.
“Most have chosen to seek medical care because they’re not able to do what they regularly do,” said Erin Staples, a CDC epidemiologist. “These people do not feel well for several days in a row.”
In guidance for health care workers, the CDC says that, as of March, all human Heartland cases involved men age 50 or over. It said the men failed to respond to an antibiotic targeting ehrlichiosis, another tick-borne disease, but that with “supportive care” most fully recovered.
The exception, before the Oklahoma case, was an elderly man who suffered from other things that could have killed him, the CDC said.
Other cases of Heartland virus have been diagnosed in Missouri and Tennessee. Like previous cases, the Oklahoma victim had a history of outdoor activities and exposure, said Becky Coffman, an epidemiologist in acute disease with the Oklahoma health department.
Justin Talley, a cooperative extension livestock entomologist at Oklahoma State University, said while “in Oklahoma, you’re always going to have ticks,” the creatures thrive in humid, wet conditions. The primary tick season runs from April to September.
Oklahoma is one of the main places in the U.S. where people acquire other tick-borne illnesses, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Talley said.
“The biggest issue you need to be concerned is keeping ticks off you,” Talley said. “We have a lot of Lone Star ticks and they’re always going to be around because of the wooded areas and the number of hosts.”
Only about 1 in 1,000 ticks are believed to be infected with any sort of pathogen, Talley said, but infection risks rise as people visit more tick-infested areas. The young and elderly have the highest risk of developing serious problems, he said.
Officials said residents should use insect repellent with at least 20 percent DEET, wear long-sleeved clothing and make thorough tick checks after being outside. To avoid ticks around the home, people can put gravel or woodchip barriers between their yard and wooded areas, avoid brush or leaf piles or tall grass and keep wildlife off their property.