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PRESS RELEASE: Tick-borne encephalitis virus detected in ticks in the UK

A roe deer standing in a forest

The tick-borne encephalitis virus (TBEV) has been detected for the first time in ticks in the UK. 

Tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) is an infection spread by tick bites and is endemic in mainland Europe and Scandinavia, as well as Asia. Most people who catch TBE will not have any symptoms, though it can cause flu-like symptoms and in a small number of cases can progress to more serious disease involving the central nervous system. The risk from TBEV is currently assessed as very low for the general population.

The findings are part of ongoing research by Public Health England (PHE) and the Emerging and Zoonotic Infections National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Health Protection Research Unit at the University of Liverpool

Dr Mara Rocchi of the Moredun Research Institute who contributed to the study says:

“TBEV might have been brought to the United Kingdom on migratory birds, such as blackbirds and redwings, which are known to transport ticks over wide distances. Our main finding is that TBEV is likely to be established and maintained in specific areas of the UK."

A TBEV infection stimulates the production of antibodies that are very similar to those generated by the Louping ill virus. As such, researchers at Moredun carried out a comparative study with Louping ill in more than 1300 deer to help identify the location of deer populations where the TBEV virus may be prevalent

Dr Rocchi says:

“Despite a large number of samples having originated in Scotland, the prevalence of antibodies to Louping ill virus in deer was much lower than that detected in Norfolk, and no TBEV-positive ticks were found."

The virus has been detected in a small number of ticks in Thetford Forest, the largest lowland pine forest in Britain located in a region between the north of Suffolk and the south of Norfolk in England. The virus has also been found in a region between Hampshire and Dorset. Further work is under way to identify the distribution of TBEV infected tick populations.

Dr Nick Phin, Deputy Director, National Infections Service, Public Health England, said:

“Tick-borne encephalitis virus, which is endemic in many European countries, has been found for the first time in a very small number of ticks in two locations in England. These are early research findings and indicate the need for further work; however, the risk to the general public is currently assessed to be very low."

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This article was adapted from the official release from Public Health England: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/tick-borne-encephalitis-virus-detected-in-ticks-in-the-uk