- Associated Press - Friday, May 30, 2014

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) - A U.S. army veteran whose family said he was otherwise healthy was identified as the first Oklahoma victim of the Heartland virus.

Family members confirmed to the Tulsa World that 76-year-old Jerry Lee Mitzer was the second person to die nationally after complications from the virus. The state Department of Health would say only that the victim was a man over 65 from Delaware County.

His three surviving children - Morgan and Mark Mitzner and Melissa Crowther - spoke to the newspaper. They said the Grove man had been healthy up until about a month before his May 21 death at a hospital.

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, only 10 cases of the virus, which is found in the Lone Star tick and spread through tick bites, have been identified since its initial discovery in 2009 in Missouri. The CDC is researching the virus but knows very little about it because of the lack of cases to study.

“We just don’t know the spectrum of illnesses or the concerns that need to follow,” Erin Staples, a CDC epidemiologist, told The Associated Press. “People should be concerned about any disease they could get from a tick, but our awareness of the Heartland virus is relatively recent.”

Symptoms of the virus can include fever, nausea and diarrhea. There is no cure. All cases have occurred between May and September and have been in men over 50.

“The main thing is we don’t know who is more susceptible. Because it’s spread by tick bites, anybody who is exposed to a tick is potentially at risk, and that’s why our prevention methods are so important,” said Becky Coffman, an epidemiologist in acute disease with the Oklahoma health department.

The Lone Star tick is the one most commonly encountered by people during recreational activities in Oklahoma.

“I think a main point to stress and drive home to an audience is if you are being treated for a tick-borne bacterial illness (Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever or Ehrlichiosis) with antibiotic and you are not getting better after seven days, it might be good to press your medical professional to look into Heartland Virus,” Bruce Noden, a medical and veterinary entomologist from Oklahoma State University. “Another point to stress is the need to vigilantly look for ticks when you’ve been outside as we do have time to keep from getting bit by ticks as it takes them a while to attach.”

Health officials urge residents to remain vigilant in checking for ticks after being outdoors and to use bug spray with at least 20 percent DEET. People can also wear long sleeved clothing when outdoors and avoid brushy areas.

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