Grab your bug spray because researchers have just discovered yet another mosquito-borne germ that can infect humans, joining the ranks of viruses like Zika, West Nile, and chikungunya.
Researchers from the University of Florida isolated the Keystone virus from a human for the first time after testing a 16-year-old boy who had a rash and fever, according to a study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. However, there is some evidence that the virus may have been infecting Floridians for years without anyone realizing it.
The Keystone virus belongs to a wide group of viruses called bunyaviruses —
specifically, the California serogroup — which infect animals throughout the US and occasionally, humans. “We actually know very little about these viruses other than some of them are known to cause severe but rare infections in humans,” John Lednicky told BuzzFeed News. Lednicky is the author of the study and a research professor in the department of environmental and global health at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
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Other viruses in this group include the La Crosse encephalitis virus and California encephalitis virus, which can cause inflammation of the brain that can be potentially life-threatening — although most people have no apparent symptoms. Fortunately, the boy infected with Keystone virus recovered from the infection.
The virus was first discovered in 1964 among mosquitos in the Tampa area and has been found in animals around the Southeastern US.
It’s named after the Keystone region of Florida, where it was first identified some 50 years ago. The germ is spread by the Aedes atlanticus, which is one of the most prevalent mosquitoes in Florida, said Lednicky.
Keystone virus is typically found in white-tailed deer, squirrels, and raccoons in the southeast, stretching from Maryland to Texas. It has never been isolated from a human, until now.
However, previous studies have suggested that the virus has been infecting people in Florida for years. “They did antibody tests in people living in the Tampa area [after Keystone was discovered] and about 20% of people seemed to have antibodies against the virus,” he said.
Tests for antibodies, which are immune system proteins, are an indirect way of testing for a virus, so it is not 100% certain that these people actually had Keystone. “There are many bunyaviruses so just because you have antibodies that react with Keystone that doesn’t mean it’s keystone, you may have been infected with a closely related virus,” Lednicky said.