Tick-borne encephalitis (TBE)

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The risk of getting tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) is much lower than the risk of getting Lyme disease. Only a small number of ticks are infected with the virus. TBE may be mild, but it can sometimes also lead to serious complications.

TBE is a flu-like viral infection that can sometimes lead to meningitis. TBE infections are very rare. A total of about 485 cases of TBE (both mild and severe forms) were reported in Germany in 2017 – with most occurring in the southern German states of Bavaria and Baden-Wuerttemberg. Although TBE usually clears up without any lasting health problems within one week, symptoms may last for months. Serious complications are much more common in adults than they are in children. In most children, the course of the disease is mild and long-lasting consequences are very rare. 

What are the signs of TBE?

A TBE infection can – but doesn't always – cause symptoms. It often goes unnoticed in children, or the symptoms are only mild and temporary. The symptoms of a mild TBE infection are similar to flu symptoms and include fever, headaches, vomiting and dizziness.

TBE is diagnosed by testing blood or cerebrospinal fluid for the TBE virus. Because the disease is caused by a virus, antibiotics won't help. There are no antiviral drugs for TBE, so there is no treatment to fight the TBE infection itself. Instead, treatment focuses on relieving the symptoms.

Signs of a more severe course of disease

Sometimes people feel better for a while after the initial flu-like symptoms have gone away, and then the symptoms such as fever, extreme tiredness and headaches come back again a few days later. They may then also have other symptoms like paralysis or impaired consciousness and coordination. These symptoms are typically caused by an infection of the brain or meninges (the membranes lining the brain and spinal cord). Paralysis is usually temporary, but in rare cases it can become permanent. It may affect the face, arms or legs. Problems with swallowing, vision and speech are also possible.

It is very rare for the infection to spread to the spinal cord (myelitis), which can cause muscle weakness, paralysis and sensory disturbances. This is more common in older people than it is in younger people. About half of those people who are infected with TBE develop serious symptoms.

TBE is very rarely fatal. Less than 1 out of 100 people die of severe TBE.

Where does TBE occur?

Some parts of Germany have been declared as high-risk areas. These are districts where TBE infection is more common than in other areas. A district is considered to be a high-risk area if at least 1 out of 100,000 people living in that district, or in the region including all of its neighboring districts, has had a TBE infection within a five-year period. So far, up to 40 out of 100,000 people living in such high-risk areas have developed TBE within a period of five years.

In other words, the risk of getting TBE is very low, even in high-risk areas. Only about 0.1 to 5% of the ticks there have the TBE virus. The German federal states with the highest occurrence of TBE are Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria, Hesse, Rhineland-Palatinate and Thuringia. In the northern part of Germany there are hardly any ticks that carry the TBE virus. You can find a map of the high-risk areas in Germany on the Robert Koch Institute website. This shows in more detail which districts are associated with a higher risk of infection.

Other European countries also have ticks that carry the virus, such as Eastern Europe – for instance, in some parts of the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland. The risk of infection is also higher in some parts of Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Sweden and Finland. The TBE virus is extremely rare in Italy, France, Norway and Denmark. Countries that have no ticks with TBE or practically none include Great Britain, Greece, Spain and the Benelux states (Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg).

When might it be a good idea to have a TBE vaccine?

The German Standing Committee on Vaccination (STIKO) advises people who live in a high-risk area and spend a lot of time outdoors to get vaccinated. Statutory health insurers in Germany cover the cost of the vaccination for people who live in “TBE risk areas.” If you are planning to travel to a higher-risk area, contact your health insurance fund beforehand to find out whether they will pay for the vaccine.

The immunization of people in certain professions, such as agriculture and forestry, is paid for by their employer.

The TBE vaccine can only protect you from the TBE virus, but not from Lyme disease, which is a much more common consequence of tick bites. Research has shown that most people who get vaccinated develop antibodies against the TBE virus. These antibodies stop the TBE virus from spreading within the body.

What does the vaccine involve?

The vaccine consists of three injections. The first two are given about 1 to 3 months apart, and then the third is given 5 to 12 months after the very first injection. A booster injection every 3 to 5 years is recommended. After the second injection, a lot of people will already have temporary immunization. Children can be vaccinated against TBE too, but their risk of serious complications from TBE is much lower than that of adults anyway.

The vaccine often has temporary side effects, including fever, dizziness, headache, tingling sensations (pins and needles) and nausea. In very rare cases, TBE vaccines can lead to more serious problems, such as nerve damage.