First human case of potentially deadly tick infection confirmed in UK

The first human case of a potentially deadly infection borne by ticks has been confirmed in the UK. Doctors say the first domestically-acquired case of tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBEV) was identified in a man bitten by ticks in Yorkshire last year. And another probable human case has also been detected in the Loch Earn area of Scotland.

While the risk of TBEV is currently very low, experts have warned that the tick species which carries the virus is widespread in the UK.

Many people with TBEV will not develop symptoms. However, others will experience side effects such as fever, vomiting, confusion, seizures and even swelling on the brain.

Both cases are described in new research due to be presented at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases in Denmark later this month.

The study by Doctor Helen Callaby, of the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), confirms that TBEV is now present in the UK.

She said: “This study confirms the tick-borne encephalitis virus is present in parts of the UK where there are relevant tick and wildlife populations and may occasionally cause disease in humans.”

As a result, the UKSHA has recommended changes to testing in hospitals so that any new cases can be picked up quickly.

And enhanced surveillance for the virus is now being carried out in England and Scotland.

“Physicians should consider the possibility of tick-borne encephalitis virus when patients present with unexplained encephalitis and a history of tick exposure, even if they have not travelled outside the UK, as the clinicians did in these cases,” Dr Callaby said.

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Health officials are also testing for the presence of the virus in blood samples of people with no symptoms in parts of Yorkshire, where the confirmed case was infected.

What are ticks?

Ticks are small, spider-like creatures that live in undergrowth and latch on to humans when they walk through long grass.

They are becoming more common in parts of the UK, mainly due to increasing numbers of deer.

While feeding, they can transmit viruses and infections that cause disease, with the most common being Lyme disease – a bacterial infection which can be treated with antibiotics.

Symptoms of TBEV

TBEV causes a range of diseases from completely asymptomatic infection to mild flu-like illness, to severe infection in the central nervous system such as meningitis or encephalitis.

Symptoms can include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Neck stiffness
  • Confusion
  • Reduced consciousness
  • Loss of coordination
  • Difficulty speaking
  • Weakness of the arms or legs
  • Seizures.

How to protect yourself

Dr Callaby said: “Although the risk to the general public is very low, it is important for people to take precautions to protect themselves from tick bites, such as covering their ankles and legs, applying insect repellent and checking clothes and your body for ticks, particularly when visiting areas with long grass such as woods, moorlands and parks.”

To remove ticks:

  • Use fine-tipped tweezers or a tick-removal tool
  • Grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible
  • Slowly pull upwards, taking care not to squeeze or crush the tick and dispose of it when you have removed it
  • Clean the bite with antiseptic or soap and water.

If you have been bitten by a tick and think you have TBEV or Lyme disease you should see your GP.

Ticks infected with TBEV have so far been located in a small number of areas in England, including Hampshire, Dorset and Norfolk.

While people nearby may have been infected no cases were confirmed until now.

In the UKHSA research, scientists reported that TBEV cases are on the rise in Europe with 3,800 reported in 2020.

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