Brain swelling disease spread by ticks reaches UK for the first time – the signs to watch for

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A BRAIN swelling disease spread by ticks has reached the UK for the first time.

Public Health England (PHE) confirmed the tick-borne encephalitis virus was detected in Thetford Forest, Norfolk, and on the Hampshire-Dorset border.

Tick-borne encephalitis has been detected in Thetford Forest, Norfolk, and the New Forest on the Hampshire-Dorset border

PHE believes a “handful” of infected ticks were found in both locations, with only one highly probable case of tick-borne encephalitis so far.

Health bosses say the risk is very low but it is currently investigating how common the ticks with the virus might be.

The small parasitic bugs are becoming more common in parts of the UK, mainly due to increasing deer numbers.

As well as living on deer, ticks can be found on other animals, such as cats, dogs and urban foxes.

Ticks can also live in undergrowth and latch onto humans when walking through undergrowth and long grass.

In addition to the encephalitis virus carried by approximately 10 per cent of ticks, the parasites can also carry other diseases, including the more common Lyme disease.

Deadly infection

Dr Nick Phin of PHE said: “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.”

Most people who catch the encephalitis virus will have no or only mild flu-like symptoms, but it can affect the brain and central nervous system and can sometimes be fatal.

A vaccine is available privately for tick-borne encephalitis.

The tick-borne encephalitis virus is already present in mainland Europe and parts of Asia.

It is thought infected ticks may have arrived in the UK through migratory birds.

“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,” Dr Phin said.

Know the signs

The illness begins with flu-like symptoms before progressing to a more serious second phase with meningitis and swelling of the brain in a quarter of cases.

If you’ve been bitten by a tick or visited an area in the past month where ticks are found, early signs can include:

  • Feeling hot and shivery
  • Headaches
  • Aching muscles
  • Feeling sick
  • Or you have a circular red rash

Go to hospital if you:

  • Get a stiff neck and severe headache
  • Pain when looking at bright lights
  • Have a fit (seizure)
  • Change in behaviour – sudden confusion
  • Develop weakness or loss of movement in part of the body


The NHS advises that tick bites can be prevented by covering skin while walking outdoors, using existing paths and nature trails, applying insect repellent and checking your clothes and hair after going for a walk.

It’s important to tell the doctor if you have been in forests or grassy areas.

According to the Encephalitis Society, a charity which supports people affected by all types of encephalitis, less than two per cent of people die from the viral infection.