The fatal tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) has been documented for the first time in the United Kingdom, according to health officials. Although the virus has been found in other European regions and some parts of Asia, this is the first time it has managed to infect someone in the UK.
A parasite called Babesia venatorum is to blame, and although it is technically an animal disease, the illness causes the infection to grow in humans who have come into contact with it. It is unknown how the virus has managed to spread from other parts of Europe into the UK, but some experts say that it could be caused by migratory birds or pets travelling throughout the region from other places.
What is tick-borne encephalitis?
Tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) is a viral infection caused by the parasitic organism Babesia venatorum. This parasite lives in animals and is a part of the flavivirus family. The virus attacks the body’s central nervous system and affects the brain and spinal cord. It doesn’t always manifest into something serious, but it can lead to meningitis or meningoencephalitis, depending on how the immune system responds to it.
Because TBE is an animal disease, they are the carriers. Once a tick bites an infected animal, the animal contracts the virus and can transfer it to humans through the same method. Humans are also susceptible to catching tick-borne encephalitis from their pets or livestock once they become infected. The virus is spread through the saliva of the infected tick and into the bloodstream. The infection then grows in the cells throughout the body, replicating itself until it has spread to all areas.
What are the symptoms of tick-borne encephalitis?
Often, the symptoms of TBE present themselves as other illnesses. The way the virus spreads throughout the body will depend entirely on the person’s immune system. The first initial symptoms will be like that of a common flu, such as nausea, headache, mild fever, vomiting and an overall unwell feeling. These symptoms don’t always appear after the initial infection, though, and some people could have the virus without any symptoms present.
Those who are experiencing these symptoms will notice that they tend to last roughly eight days – but after the incubation period of eight to 14 days is over, the virus takes flight throughout the rest of the body, attacking the brain and other vital organs. Once the infection has reached the brain, inflammation will occur; this results in neurological symptoms such as sensitivity to light, motor function impairment, sensory problems, and brain fog with confusion. In the worst cases, seizures and death are also a risk after contracting TBE.
In animals, the neurological symptoms manifest similarly to humans, but they can be much worse. For example, dogs may experience seizures and even death, while other animals such as ruminants may experience lethargy and respiratory problems.
Who is at risk?
The risk factors for contracting TBE vary from person to person, but the most likely cause of the infection is through a tick bite. Ticks are present in highly wooded areas, so people who frequent hiking trails or spend a lot of time outdoors are at a higher risk of getting the infection through a tick bite. It has also been reported that the virus can spread from animals, especially livestock, when a person drinks unpasteurised milk from an infected animal or takes part in the slaughter of infected sheep. Although extremely rare, mothers with the infection can pass it onto their child through breastfeeding, and people who receive blood transfusions can also be at a slightly higher risk of contracting the illness.
Those who suffer the worst part of the illness are those with weakened immune systems, the elderly, and those who travel often to different parts of the world where the infection rate is higher.
How can you reduce your risk?
To help limit the chances of getting bit by an infected tick, it’s important to protect yourself in wooded areas where ticks are known to carry the disease. Wearing loose, light-coloured clothing along with bug spray and checking for bites immediately upon returning home will all lower the risk of catching tick-borne encephalitis in the UK.
To diagnose the illness, a doctor will perform blood tests and may have to do a more invasive test of the spinal fluid to ensure it hasn’t spread. Since there is no specialised treatment for TBE, the only way to monitor the illness is to manage symptoms and try to strengthen the immune system. The only true way of fighting the disease is allowing the body to handle it.
Lyme disease in the UK
TBE isn’t the only virus that can be contracted through a tick bite. Lyme disease is one of the main illnesses that is spread through tick bites and in the UK alone, around 8,000 people were infected with Lyme disease in 2019.
Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics, but if left untreated can cause flu-like symptoms in the early stages, advancing slowly to more serious conditions such as numbness in the limbs, arthritis, and weakened cognitive function.