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The Big Picture
TBE virus has arrived in the UK

Abstract

Josh Loeb discusses how UK ticks are now carrying the tick-borne encephalitis virus

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The arrival of tick-borne encephalitis in the UK is a reminder of the risks of exotic tick-borne pathogens establishing in the UK

The tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) virus has arrived.

Veterinary parasitologists have long warned of the potential for the virus, which is endemic in mainland Europe, to spread to the UK – and now it has.

It causes TBE – a disease of the central nervous system that, rarely, can be fatal. More often, it causes non-specific flu-like symptoms or no symptoms at all.

Nevertheless, the news that, for the first time, ticks (Ixodes ricinus) in the UK were found to be harbouring the virus should serve as a wake-up call for the vet profession about the potential for exotic transboundary diseases to establish themselves here, experts say.

Ian Wright, head of the European Scientific Counsel for Companion Animal Parasites UK & Ireland, warned: ‘The arrival of TBE in the UK is a reminder of the risks of exotic tick-borne pathogens establishing in the UK. UK vets and nurses play a vital role in vigilance, surveillance and owner education when taking pets abroad and importing them.

‘Without engagement across the whole veterinary profession, more tick-borne pathogens making their home here is inevitable.’

Rescue dogs of unknown health status imported into the UK from elsewhere in Europe have been cited as a possible cause, but no one knows for sure how the virus first came here. Climate change may be enabling ticks in the UK to be active for longer, thereby increasing the transmission risk. Increased forestation and burgeoning populations of deer have also been linked to an increase in the tick population.

Although dogs and cats cannot directly transmit TBE to people, pets can pick up ticks that may be carrying the virus. Dogs appear to be more resistant to the disease than people, but, in the event that they do develop the disease, clinical signs are almost identical to those seen in human cases. The virus may also be transmitted by the consumption of unpasteurised milk from infected animals, although that is rare.

British Small Animal Veterinary Association (BSAVA) president Sue Paterson said the discovery of the virus in the UK was ‘causing some alarm, especially among pet owners’.

To help its members provide answers to clients’ questions, BSAVA last week rolled out some Q&A advice, including tips on precautionary and preventive measures.

These include regularly checking pets for ticks, thoroughly checking pets just before returning to the UK if travelling abroad and removing visible ticks as soon as possible using a tick-removal tool. Once removed, ticks can be sent to the Tick Surveillance Scheme (www.gov.uk/guidance/tick-surveillance-scheme), which aims to inform the assessment of the public health impact of ticks.

News of the detection of the TBE virus in small numbers of ticks in two locations in England – Thetford Forest and the Hampshire/Dorset border area – was announced last month by Public Health England.

Earlier this year, a European visitor became ill after being bitten by a tick in the New Forest. This is considered to be a highly probable case of TBE. To date, no other cases of TBE considered likely to have been acquired in the UK have been identified.

Nick Phin, deputy director of the National Infections Service at Public Health England, said: ‘Ticks carry a number of infections including Lyme disease, so we are reminding people to be “tick aware” and take tick precautions, particularly when visiting or working in areas with long grass such as woodlands, moorlands and parks.’ •

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