A few years ago, a farmer from Bourbon County, Kansas ended up at the University of Kansas Hospital with an unknown disease. His organs were failing and doctors weren’t sure why. Dana Hawkinson, an infectious disease specialist at the hospital, suspected a tick-borne illness. Doctors tired everything they could think of to treat the man, but after 10 days, his lungs failed and his blood pressure collapsed.
Hawkinson remembers, “We didn’t have an answer for the longest time as to why is he not getting better? What is causing this? Nothing that we’re doing is seeming to help even though we’re going to the nth degree to try and give him supportive care and give him active care to try and get him better.”
When the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined a sample of the man’s blood, they found a new pathogen, similar to overseas illnesses spread by ticks and mosquitoes. The CDC named the the illness “Bourbon virus.
Three years have passed since the Bourbon virus was discovered and it still remains much of a mystery. A second case was reported in Oaklahoma about a year after the first. Hawkinson believed that other cases may have gone undiagnosed. “I can’t give you a specific number, but certainly cases where people were ill and we think it looks like one sort of disease, but it isn’t, and they end up recovering or they die and that’s what it truly is.”
Bourbon Virus Symptoms
Hawkinson also suspects that there’s a broad spectrum of disease caused by Bourbon virus. Symptoms are usually nonspecific, making them difficult to identify. Mild-case symptoms include:
Lee Norman, the chief medical officer at KY Hospital, said it would be helpful if the CDC offered more flexibility when it comes to testing for the virus. The CDC currently requires patients to have a number of specific symptoms, including high fever, low white blood cell count, low platelet count and elevated liver enzymes, before it will test for Bourbon virus.
Hawkinson reiterated the importance of tick-prevention. To keep yourself and your family safe, avoid wooded areas when possible and wear long sleeves and pants when you are in a wooded area. Keep your grass cut, keep wood piles neatly stacked and check for ticks regularly after you’ve spent time outside.