The discovery of a new virus in northwest Missouri gave Missouri Western State University biology students the opportunity to work beside leading public health officials to try to answer some basic questions about the virus and how it may be spread.
“This was a classic applied learning experience for our students,” said Dr. David Ashley, professor of biology. “Many of them are interested in careers in medicine or related fields, and this gave them an opportunity for hands-on experiences directly related to their career goals. They also had the chance to network with some ‘big guns’ in the public health industry, which may lead to some internships and even career opportunities.”
Dr. Ashley partnered with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to learn more about a newly described virus. The virus was isolated in two patients at Heartland Regional Medical Center from 2009 and has been designated the Heartland virus. Based on the history of tick bites in the patients and the timing of their illness, it is suspected that the virus is transmitted by ticks. A description of the virus, believed to be the first phlebovirus to cause disease in the United States, was published today in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Researchers who had isolated the virus at the CDC contacted Dr. Ashley to help with planned ecologic investigations during the tick season of 2012. Dr. Ashley arranged for local laboratory space in the Missouri Department of Conservation building on Missouri Western’s campus from which the CDC teams could base their operations. He also recognized the project as a perfect opportunity for the students enrolled in his summer PORTAL (Program of Research, Teaching and Applied Learning).
The students, Dr. Ashley and state and local health officials helped conduct a large field study focused on the two patients’ farms and nearby properties. Ticks and mosquitoes were collected, along with samples from raccoons and other wildlife that may be hosts. Students helped with the collection and with processing the samples in the lab. The findings of these studies are currently being analyzed to better understand the species and stage of ticks involved and the animal hosts that may become infected.
To date, only two human cases had been identified and both men were hospitalized for 10 to 12 days with clinical features indistinguishable from ehrlichiosis, another human tick-borne illness found in this area. Symptoms include fever, headache, fatigue and diarrhea.
Through the collaboration of Dr. Ashley and health officials, more will be learned about this new threat to northwest Missourians.