The presence of a rare tick-borne disease that has infected people in six southern and southwestern states has been found in Maine.
Antibodies for Heartland virus have shown up on blood samples taken from deer in the state.
Heartland virus is carried by the lone star tick, which is not widespread in Maine. So while tick experts say it’s important to stay on top of the disease, there is no reason to panic.
“It’s something to be aware of,” said Griffin Dill, director of the University of Maine tick lab. “It could potentially appear here but it could be one of those things that an infected tick brought in and it fed on deer but will not establish a population.”
Maine in 2015 was among the states in which blood samples from deer, raccoons, moose and/or coyotes collected between 2009 and 2014 reportedly were found to have antibodies for the Heartland virus.
According to the University of Maine 2021 Tick Surveillance Report, only 29 lone star ticks were reported in Maine in 2021. Of those, 17 were associated with people traveling to Maine from other states.
This week, researchers in Georgia announced they had confirmed lone star ticks had infected dozens of people in the state with the Heartland virus, making it the sixth state in which the disease has been found.
According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Heartland virus in humans causes fever, fatigue, decreased appetite, headache, gastrointestinal issues and muscle or joint pain. It often requires hospitalization and there is no vaccine for Heartland virus.
“Heartland is an emerging infectious disease that is not well understood,” Gonzalo Vazquez-Prokopec, associate professor in Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences and senior author of the study based in Georgia, told the media. “We’re trying to get ahead of this virus by learning everything that we can about it before it potentially becomes a bigger problem.”
So far the virus has been identified in humans in Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
While Heartland virus is not yet a human health issue in Maine, the tick-borne illness Lyme disease remains a concern. It’s carried and transmitted by deer ticks and, according to Dill, they are starting to wake up from their overwintering dormancy.
Deer ticks are coming out hungry and looking for hosts on which to feed. The female ticks are also looking for hosts on which they find male ticks. The females then lay their eggs on the ground in leaf litter or under duff on the forest floor.
In the 2021 tick surveillance report, Dill’s lab had found a higher percentage of ticks testing positive for the Lyme disease-causing pathogen last year over the previous year.
Dill sees no reason to think the numbers of deer ticks will be down this summer since this winter was not severe enough to impact their population. The only thing that could make a dent in their population is a prolonged drought in the state.
Dill urges anyone going outside to start taking tick prevention precautions now for themselves and their pets.
“This is the time of year when people are not really thinking about pests,” he said. “Mosquitos are not out yet, so those cans of bug spray are tucked away, but now is the time to take those personal protection measures.”
Dill recommends using some sort of tick repellent on clothing and conducting routine body checks for ticks after coming back inside.
“It does not matter how long you are outside,” Dill said. “Whether you are out just walking the dog and checking the mail or out hiking or biking, any outdoor activity can potentially run the risk of encountering a tick.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated where female ticks lay their eggs. Ticks lay their eggs on the ground in leaf litter or a layer of forest duff.