New Bacterium Causing Tick-Borne Illness Found in Wisconsin, Minnesota

The new bacterium, not yet named, has been identified in more than 25 people and found in black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks, in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

A new tick-borne bacterium infecting humans with ehrlichiosis has been discovered in Wisconsin and Minnesota. It was identified as a new strain of bacteria through DNA testing conducted at Mayo Clinic. The findings appear in the Aug. 4 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Doctors at Mayo Clinic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin, and state and local health departments said the new species from the Ehrlichia genus can cause a feverish illness in humans. The new bacterium, not yet named, has been identified in more than 25 people and found in black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks (Ixodes scapularis), in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Researchers used culture and genetic analyses.

"Before this report, human ehrlichiosis was thought to be very rare or absent in Minnesota and Wisconsin," says Bobbi Pritt, M.D., a Mayo Clinic microbiologist and director of the Clinical Parasitology and Virology Laboratories who helped coordinate the multi-agency team. "Therefore, physicians might not know to look for Ehrlichia infections at all."

Ehrlichia infect and kill white blood cells and may cause fever, body aches, headache, and fatigue. More severe disease may involve multiple organs such as the lungs, kidneys, and brain and require hospitalization. Ehrliochosis rarely results in death.

All four patients described in the article suffered fever and fatigue. One patient, who had already received a bilateral lung transplant, was hospitalized briefly for his illness. All four patients recovered following antibiotic treatment with doxycycline, the drug of choice for treating ehrlichiosis. Although more than 25 cases have been identified, many more have likely been missed or unreported, Pritt said.

"As the deer tick population continues to spread and increase across Wisconsin, we are likely to see increasing incidence of this new infection, just as we have seen with Lyme disease and anaplasmosis which are transmitted by the same tick species,'' says co-author Susan Paskewitz, Ph.D., an entomologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

To date, thousands of blood samples from across the United States have been screened by Mayo Clinic laboratory technologists, and the bacterium has been detected only in specimens collected from Wisconsin and Minnesota. Thousands of ticks across the country have also been analyzed, and only those from the two states have been carriers.

Because the bacterium is likely transmitted through the bite of an infected tick, Pritt cautions that people should apply insect repellent and wear pants and long-sleeved shirts when active outdoors.

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    January 2019

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