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Checking for ticks after a hike can be key in avoiding diseases spread by the insect. Getty Images
  • The Powassan virus is a rare disease that can be spread to people via a tick bite.
  • Unlike Lyme disease, which is a bacterial infection, the Powassan virus cannot be treated with antibiotics.
  • Half of all survivors may have long-term health issues.

Tick bites can cause an array of illnesses, but most people think mainly of Lyme disease. Now a different tick-borne disease is worrying officials after it led to the death of a New York resident.

The person died as a result of Powassan virus, a rare but serious disease, according to the Ulster County Health Department in New York. The viral disease is transmitted to humans when an infected tick bites a person.

About 10 percent of people who develop severe disease will die from the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About half of all survivors experience long-term health issues including memory problems, recurring headaches, and loss of muscle mass.

Unlike Lyme disease, there is no bulls-eye rash that forms after the bite.

“Several common tick species that folks may encounter, such as American dog ticks and Lone Star ticks, do not spread this virus,” explained Dr. Graham J. Hickling, a professor and Lyme disease researcher at The University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture in Knoxville. Blacklegged, or deer, ticks can transmit Powassan, as can groundhog and squirrel ticks.

Symptoms of the Powassan virus can include vomiting, fever, headache, weakness, confusion, loss of coordination, memory difficulties, seizures, and speech problems. Patients who have it are closely monitored to prevent brain swelling.

In the case of the resident from Gardiner, New York, other underlying health issues were present.

In 2017, 33 cases were reported, but that decreased to 21 last year. Cases began to surge nationally in 2016. Minnesota had the highest record of cases between 2009 and 2018, the CDC reports. A case of the virus was reported in Maine last month, and in New Jersey the month before.

Cases mostly occur in the Northeast and Great Lakes region of the country. Late spring, early summer, and mid-fall are when ticks are most active.

Powassan is so rare is because few ticks carry it, Hickling said. According to a 2012 study he referenced, there were 30 positive blacklegged ticks from more than 1,900 that were sampled in Connecticut.

“So that’s only one or two positives per 100 ticks tested. In comparison, in the Northeast you might expect to find 30 to 50 ticks per 100 positive with the Lyme disease bacteria,” Hickling said.

More recent studies have warned about a rise in cases and called for more research into diagnostics and treatment methods.

“[Powassan] is on the rise, but not, like, ‘epidemic on the rise,” noted Jim Occi, a PhD candidate, microbiologist, and medical entomologist at Rutgers–New Brunswick. He said the first case was reported in Canada in 1958, and there were several cases in about 20 years. The rate has gone up since then, depending on the region. Still, the number of cases compared to other tick-borne diseases is relatively low.

The increase in cases may be due to more awareness, recognition, and testing, Occi said. There are a lot more cases of Lyme, per se, compared to Powassan, he added.

“There’s no question that tick-borne illnesses in general are on the rise,” said Dr. Richard S. Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in New York.

Public health officials are better documenting cases, which boosts some of the statistics, Ostfeld said.

“There is some evidence that cases of Powassan virus disease are increasing, but they remain rare enough that trends are hard to document with certainty,” he added.

“It remains somewhat puzzling why there aren’t more cases of Powassan viral illness,” Ostfeld noted.

“There is some evidence that some people get exposed to the virus but don’t develop symptoms. That could be a reason why there aren’t more cases reported,” Ostfeld pointed out.

In order to prevent getting Powassan or other tick-borne illnesses, it’s important to prevent exposure to ticks. When outside, be sure to tuck pants into your socks, stay on cleared paths, use insect repellants, wear lightly colored clothing, shower after outdoor exposure, and check pets and family members at the end of the day.

Any ticks should be removed promptly. The longer a tick stays attached to your skin, the higher the risk of contracting an infection if the tick is infected, Occi said.

“Our general advice is to see a doctor only if symptoms… develop,” Hickling said.

Ticks infected with Powassan can transmit the virus within an hour, where as a tick infected with Lyme disease can take about 36 hours to transmit the infection, Occi noted.

“This reinforces the message that ticks need to be removed without delay once we find them on us,” Ostfeld added. Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp them as close to the skin as possible and pull straight out. “Don’t waste time with ‘folk remedies’ like Vaseline, nail polish, burnt matches… which don’t work and cause delays.”

There are more than 15 infectious diseases that are carried by ticks, the CDC reports.