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Officials Looking For Answers On New ‘Bourbon Virus’

News that federal and state health officials are studying a new virus linked to the death of a Bourbon County, Kan., resident caused little stir in the county Tuesday. But that could change once ticks return to the county's woods and prairies.

The Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE) announced Monday it had joined the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in investigating the “Bourbon virus” that contributed to the death of a Bourbon County man last summer. The man died with symptoms like fever and fatigue common to other tick-borne illnesses, and state and federal health officials believe the new virus also is transmitted through the bites of ticks or other insects.

In a video posted by the University of Kansas Hospital, infectious disease specialist Dana Hawkinson said the virus is unlike anything ever seen in Kansas or even the United States.

“Its genome is similar to viruses that have been found in Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia, but no virus like that has ever been identified in the Western Hemisphere,” he said. “Those other viruses that it seems to be related to, there are very few cases reported to cause illness in humans and animals. Certainly nothing as we have seen here.”

Hawkinson said he and his team had few answers as the Bourbon County resident’s health declined.

“That caused a lot of frustration for myself and the other medical personnel caring for him because we just couldn’t answer questions to the family, and to ourselves, as to why this was happening to this gentleman,” he said.

It is not known if Bourbon virus was the cause of death or how much it contributed to the resident’s death, according to KDHE.

Without more cases to study, Hawkinson said it would be impossible to say if the illness is always that severe or if there are milder cases.

There are more than a dozen tick-borne illnesses identified in the United States, including Heartland virus, which was found in Missouri last spring.

The case history of the Bourbon County man who died has been reviewed. Now that the CDC has developed a blood test to confirm Bourbon virus, there are plans to test other residents with similar symptoms who also tested negative for Heartland virus in the past year.

Investigators also will be testing ticks and other insects for the new virus.

A diagnosis, while a first step, does not provide many treatment options, Hawkinson said.

“There’s essentially no treatment available for a lot of our viral illnesses,” he said.

He and state officials encouraged prevention, including wearing long pants and sleeves and using insect repellent with DEET when in wooded or brushy areas. When returning from those areas, Kansans are encouraged to check themselves for ticks promptly.

In addition to symptoms such as fever and fatigue, those infected with Bourbon virus may experience muscle aches and severe appetite suppression that is akin to anorexia, Hawkinson said.

“They just don’t feel like eating,” he said.

Hawkinson said April to September is the usual timeline for tick season in Kansas, but in recent years warm weather has extended the season. The past two years, the Kansas Department for Wildlife, Parks and Tourism has disseminated tick warnings starting in April and May.

News of the Bourbon virus quickly spread to national websites in the United States and United Kingdom.

But in Bourbon County, with Christmas coming and the ticks long gone, all was quiet.

An employee at the Southeast Kansas Multi-County Health Department’s Fort Scott office said Tuesday she had received no calls about the virus from county residents.

Mary Winn, an infection prevention nurse at Mercy Hospital in Fort Scott, said she had not received any calls from concerned residents either, but that may change once the weather warms.

“Another tick-borne virus is worrisome, not only to health care providers but the population at large, because we are rural and people are out and about,” Winn said. “Farming and ranching is their business. It’s their livelihood.”

Andy Marso is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.

Andy Marso is a reporter for KCUR 89.3 and the Kansas News Service based in Topeka.
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