‘No one had ever heard of it’: Woman dies from rare tick-borne virus


After working for a decade in Meramec State Park in Missouri,
Tamela Wilson knew how to protect herself from ticks — when she
went into the woods she wore long sleeves and jeans and sprayed
herself with insect repellent.

On Mother’s Day, Wilson, who enjoyed camping and being
outdoors, asked her daughter Andrea Cabanas to inspect her for
ticks. Cabanas spotted two and removed them.

Amie May

As an assistant superintendent of a state park, Tamela Wilson
understood how to protect herself from ticks yet she still
contracted a tick-borne illness.

A few days later Wilson, 58, who also had non-Hodgkin’s
lymphoma, felt ill so she visited her primary care physician.
The doctor diagnosed her with a urinary tract infection and
sent her home with antibiotics. But Wilson didn’t improve. She
returned to the doctor, who ran blood tests and noticed her
white blood cell count was low. The doctor sent her to
Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis for treatment.

“She told the doctors she had a tick bite,” May said. “She
looked like she had a flu. She didn’t look herself, but she was
fine otherwise.”

Then Wilson developed a rash. Because she worked in a park,
doctors suspected she might have
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, a bacterial disease
, or

Heartland virus
, two tick-borne illnesses that occur in the
lower Midwest.

After tests came back negative for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
and Heartland virus, doctors sent Wilson’s blood to the Centers
for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for more testing.
Wilson received shocking news — she had the
Bourbon virus.

“No one had ever heard of it,” May said.

Amie May

Tamela Wilson enjoyed the outdoors frequently and always made
sure to protect herself from ticks.

Similar to other tick-borne illnesses

That’s because Wilson was only the fifth confirmed case of
Bourbon virus, which was first discovered in 2014, when a man
from Bourbon County, Kansas caught it and subsequently died.
There’s so little known about the Bourbon infection, it’s
unclear how long a tick needs to be attached for the virus to
be transmitted. For instance, with
Lyme disease, a tick needs to be attached
for at least 24

“It presents with an illness similar to other tick-borne
illnesses,” said Dr. Steven Lawrence, a Washington University
infectious disease specialist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, who
did not treat Wilson.

People with Bourbon virus experience fatigue, fever, headache,
body aches, nausea, vomiting, and a rash. There’s no treatment
for it but doctors can manage the symptoms.

“It is a potentially serious infection and raised some concern.
But not to the point that everyone should have a daily concern
they are going to get the Bourbon virus,” Lawrence said.

People in the lower Midwest are much more likely to contract
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and ehrlichiosis than Bourbon virus, he said. While
these tick-borne illnesses can be serious, there are treatments
for both of them.

“The Bourbon and this Heartland virus … have captured a lot of
attention because there is not an antiviral treatment for
them,” Lawrence said. Heartland virus was first identified in
2011 when two Missouri men got sick and later recovered.

That’s why prevention remains important. Lawrence said people
should follow four guidelines to try to avoid tick-borne

Avoid tick heavy areas

Be careful in wooded areas, high grasses, and leaf litter.

Use insect repellent with 20 percent DEET

This prevents ticks bites best, according to the

Remain covered

Wear long sleeves and long pants and tuck pants into boots.

Do regular tick checks

Removing ticks as soon as possible reduces the chance of

While Wilson followed the guidelines, she still was exposed to
a tick carrying the virus. At the same time, she battled the
Bourbon virus, Wilson also developed pneumonia and
hemophagocytic lymphohistiocytosis (HLH), which doctors treated
with a round of chemo.

Amie May

Amie May hopes that her mom’s death from complications of the
Bourbon virus reminds people to protect themselves from

“They were at a loss of what to do for her,” May said. “It was
very frustrating. To see her every day and she would just be a
little worse than the last time.”

On June 23 Wilson passed away from complications related to the
Bourbon virus. May hopes that people hear her mother’s story
and realize the importance of protecting themselves from ticks.

“If you are outside in the woods, just check for ticks and know
the symptoms,” she said.

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