Ticks don’t have to bite you to be dangerous. A Japanese woman recently passed away from a tick-borne illness that doctors believe was transmitted from a tick-bitten cat. This unusual case may be the first ever documented case of mammal-to-human tick infection.
The woman was reportedly caring for a sick stray cat. Just ten days after, she died from a condition known as Severe Fever with Thrombocytopenia Syndrome (SFTS).
SFTS is known to be carried by ticks, but upon examination, doctors could find no trace of a tick bite on the woman’s body. The only logical conclusion left was that the transmission occurred via the infected cat.
"No reports on animal-to-human transmission cases have been made so far," said a Japanese health ministry official. "It's still not confirmed the virus came from the cat, but it's possible that it is the first case.” Frighteningly, mammal-to-mammal transmission and human-to-human transmission of SFTS have both been documented before.
SFTS is not widely known in the U.S. since there’s been no recorded incidence here. The condition is regarded as an emerging infectious disease in Asia, with the first cases being reported in the mid-2000s.
Scientists are still working to unravel the biology of the relatively new condition. So far, they know the tick-borne virus causes flu-like symptoms that can make it difficult to diagnose correctly. Left untreated, the symptoms progress to thrombocytopenia (low platelet count) and reduction of white blood cells. These manifestations increase the risks for infection and bleeding problems, eventually leading to multi-organ failure. It’s estimated that SFTS is fatal in over 30 percent of cases, especially in people over 50 years old.
While SFTS has mainly been documented in China, Japan, and Korea, people in the US and elsewhere shouldn’t be lured to let their guards down. Worldwide, ticks are spreading Lyme disease, a condition caused by a corkscrew bacterium known as Borrelia burgdorferi.
Lyme disease is known as the "Great Imitator" because symptoms, such as rash, fever, headache, and fatigue, are nonspecific and can mimic many other conditions. Not getting the appropriate treatment for Lyme disease has severe health consequences. Long-term, the infection can cause loss of muscle tone, joint pain, severe headaches, heart palpitations, and other neurological symptoms. But unfortunately, many people who contract the disease end up with a misdiagnosis of fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, multiple sclerosis, or another psychiatric illness.
It's important to note that not all tick bites will transmit disease, and not everyone who is infected with disease will develop symptoms immediately. Because of this, it's more critical to prevent infection in the first place. Preventative measures include using insect repellent, wearing long pants and shirts, and sticking to trails, if possible, when in the woods. Lastly, it's a good habit to always check yourself, your family members, and even your pets, when you get back from the great outdoors.
If you do find a tick, officials recommend using good tweezers to pull all of the tick out of the body, and wash the site well with soap and water. Of note, methods that involve matches, nail polish, or other household chemicals are not effective and can make the wound even worse. And if you do develop flu-like symptoms upon discovering a tick bite, it’s best to seek medical attention as soon as possible.
Additional sources: Japan Times, BBC, Live Science