Tick-borne Powassan virus can kill you – How to protect yourself
Written by Cara Murez
Health Day reporter
THURSDAY, May 25, 2023 (HealthDay News) — Robert Weymouth, 58, of Portland, Maine, died this year of a tick bite.
You’ve probably heard about Lyme disease and the problems a deer tick bite can cause. But Lyme isn’t the only tick-borne disease in the woods.
Powassan virus, a rare and untreatable infection, is also transmitted by ticks. That’s the bite that led to fatal complications for a truck driver in Maine.
Weymouth — the third Powassan death in Maine since 2015 and the first this year — likely contracted the virus in the state, according to the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He developed neurological symptoms and died at the hospital.
His widow, Annemarie Weymouth, is now warning others to protect themselves from the disease.
“He was there, but he couldn’t move his body. He could point to the words on the board. He pointed to the words ‘afraid,’ ‘afraid,’ ‘frustrated,'” Weymouth said. CBS News.
The true number of cases is unknown
“Because it’s relatively rare to be diagnosed, there’s a lot we don’t know,” said Dr. Eugene Shapiro, a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at Yale University.
But here is what is known:
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received 189 reports of Powassan infections between 2012 and 2021.
Most Powassan virus occurs in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions of the United States. Maine had four cases last year alone.
Although ticks are arachnids like spiders, the virus is not that different from some viruses that carry mosquitoes, such as dengue and Zika. Other than being transmitted by ticks, the Powassan virus “doesn’t resemble Lyme disease in any way, shape or form,” Shapiro said.
According to Shapiro, the Powassan virus is closely related to tick-borne encephalitis, which occurs particularly in Central Eastern Europe and Eurasia.
Powassan virus only seriously affects a small number of people each year. But it’s possible that many others are asymptomatic or have minor or flu-like symptoms and go undiagnosed.
The virus is named after its discovery in a 5-year-old boy who died of the virus in the late 1950s in Powassan, Ontario, Canada.
Experts believe that in the past it was mainly spread by groundhog ticks, which normally did not feed on humans. Instead, it fed mainly on magpies, ground squirrels and squirrels, Shapiro said.
At some point, it moved to deer ticks, and those are ticks that usually bite people.
There are still many mysteries to be unraveled about the Powassan virus. For example, while some research suggests that up to 5% of deer ticks in some areas of Connecticut test positive for the virus, that doesn’t show up in the high number of human infections in Powassan, Shapiro said.
But according to CDC numbers, the number of cases is rising, said Dr. Nicole Baumgarth, an immunologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Still, it is not clear whether more people are actually infected or whether doctors are testing more often, he said.
“There’s no treatment other than general support for people with the disease,” Baumgarth said. “The most serious disease associated with Powassan is encephalitis or encephalitis, but not everyone who contracts this virus develops these very serious cases.”
Additional symptoms may include fever, chills, fatigue, rash on the trunk, muscle weakness, nausea, vomiting, dizziness and stiff neck, according to Yale Medicine.
However, the vast majority of those infected are likely to have no or only minor symptoms and go undiagnosed.
Those with symptoms severe enough to warrant a diagnosis typically have encephalitis, with a mortality rate of somewhere between 10% and 30%, Shapiro said.
However, keep in mind that this is rare. “It’s kind of scary, but it’s a rare disease,” Baumgarth said.
For Lyme disease, the tick needs to stick around for about a day to transmit the infection. By removing the tick immediately, the risk of infection is low. If this lasts longer, a single dose of doxycycline is moderately effective in preventing infection. But Baumgarth noted that the Powassan pathogen can spread faster than Lyme bacteria, “so it’s hard to prevent.”
Prevention is the best cure
You can take some precautions to limit tick exposure if you spend time in grassy or wooded areas where ticks may be present, Baumgarth and Shapiro said.
Wear long sleeves and long pants with the bottom of the pants tucked inside the socks.
Wear light-colored clothing so ticks are visible. Remove them immediately.
Use an insect repellent with 30% DEET. Another repellent, permethrin, should be applied to clothing.
After you return from your hike, wash your clothes and put them in a hot dryer. If it’s hot enough, it will kill the ticks.
After returning, check yourself for ticks, shower immediately, and if possible, have someone check places you can’t see.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more coverage of the Powassan virus.
SOURCES: Eugene Shapiro, MD, professor of pediatrics and epidemiology, vice chair for research, Department of Pediatrics, and Yale University, New Haven, Conn. Nicole Baumgarth, DVM, PhD, immunologist, Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, Baltimore; CBS News