The death of a Missouri woman who was carrying the Bourbon virus last month has put the mysterious disease that was first identified at University of Kansas Hospital in 2014 back in the news.
The virus, which is believed to be tick-borne, has to be identified through testing by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There have only been a few confirmed cases, which have occurred after exposure to ticks in southeast Kansas, central Oklahoma and eastern Missouri. Dana Hawkinson, the infectious disease doctor who treated the first known case at KU, said the range of the illness could include Kansas City.
“It’s hard to say,” Hawkinson said. “Certainly, we understand the ticks are present in our area and around our area.”
Hawkinson said the seriousness of Bourbon virus needs greater study, and it’s likely that most cases are not as severe as that of his patient, who also died.
But with ticks predicted to be more prevalent after two straight mild winters, here’s what public health officials say you should do to protect yourself:
First, take the normal precautions for avoiding tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Wear long sleeves and pants outdoors, especially in wooded areas, and use a bug repellent with at least 20 percent DEET. Check yourself for ticks when you come inside and run clothes through a dryer on high heat to kill the bugs.
If you know you’ve been bitten by a tick and you start to feel ill, you should see a doctor. Sara O’Connor, a spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said symptoms of Bourbon virus include fever, headache, body aches, diarrhea and fatigue.
“It should be noted these symptoms are shared with other tick-borne conditions,” O’Connor said.
Kara Titus, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said research is ongoing into the signs and symptoms of Bourbon virus, as well as another newly discovered tick-borne illness called Heartland virus.
But Kansas doctors who suspect a patient may have Heartland or Bourbon virus should contact the Kansas Epidemiology Hotline at 877-427-7317 to coordinate testing.
The criteria for the CDC to initiate testing is strict. The patient must have a fever of 100.4 degrees or more, low white blood cell andplatelet counts, and must not have any other known condition that could cause those symptoms.
“Currently, tests for Bourbon virus are not widely available,” O’Connor said. “If your doctor is concerned about the presence of Bourbon virus, they can contact DHSS.”
There’s no known treatment for Bourbon virus, but Hawkinson said research is ongoing, and in the meantime there are measures hospitals can take to improve patients’ chances of fighting off the disease.
“Be aggressive and give them the supportive care they need,” Hawkinson said. “Four, five, six years ago unfortunately, this (death) may have happened and we would have no answers as to why. Maybe we can continue to work and research and eventually be able to prevent these types of outcomes.”