Maine CDC has confirmed the death of an unnamed Waldo County resident from the deadly Powassan virus infection.
Since its discovery in 1958, the Powassan virus has caused infections across the United States, Canada, and Russia. Although cases are rare in the US, they have significantly increased over the years. Since 2015, the country has reported 25 cases per year, 10 higher than pre-2015. While Maine has identified 14 cases of Powassan virus since 2010. According to the CDC, most cases occur in late spring, early summer, or mid-fall when ticks are most active.
According to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), the unnamed person likely contracted Powassan virus infection in Maine. The individual had developed neurological symptoms and later died in the hospital. It is currently unclear how the individual contracted the infection or what other symptoms they experienced.
Researchers believe that climate change might be to blame for the rise in tick-borne diseases. Since there is currently no specific treatment for the disease, the CDC has issued several protective measures to help prevent infections.
Here’s how to protect yourself from tick bites:
- Practice caution in areas ticks are commonly found, such as wooded or bushy areas with tall grass.
- Avoid areas and trails with ticks.
- Use an effective and EPA-approved tick repellent on skin and permethrin-based repellents on clothing and gear.
- When returning home from a tick habitat, always check clothing and skin for ticks.
- Immediately shower and wash clothing and gear after spending time in areas with ticks.
- If venturing to tick habitats, wear long-sleeved shirts and pants to keep skin covered.
- In the case of pets, talk to a vet about safe and effective products to protect from tick bites.
What is Powassan Virus?
Powassan virus infection occurs through the bite of an infected deer or woodchuck tick. However, in rare cases, the infection can also spread from person-to-person through blood transfusions.
Most people don’t develop any signs and symptoms upon being bit. In others, the symptoms can take time to develop – a week to a month. While most people develop a mild infection, some can suffer severe disease. This is characterized by neurological symptoms such as encephalitis (swelling of the brain), meningitis (swelling of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord), confusion, seizures, and difficulty walking or talking.
The CDC estimates that 1 in 10 severe infections result in death. Moreover, half of the people who survive the infection suffer from long-term problems such as memory problems, headaches, and loss of muscle strength.
Initial signs and symptoms can include:
Health professionals generally rely on a history of exposure to ticks, along with a physical examination and laboratory tests, to confirm the diagnosis. Currently, there is no specific treatment for Powassan virus disease. For severe diseases, treatment is mostly supportive and aimed at reducing swelling in the brain.
There are no vaccines to treat tick-borne diseases; however, Yale researchers are working on an mRNA vaccine against ticks. It aims to induce immunity against the Lyme pathogen Borrelia burgdorferi, using the tick’s saliva. According to researchers, the mRNA vaccine can recognize 19 proteins within the tick’s saliva. In a study based on guinea pigs, the researchers discovered that none of the immunized animals contracted an infection. The ticks did not feed on the animals and instead quickly detached. Although the vaccine has yet to be tested in humans, researchers are hopeful that it can help confer tick immunity.
Pennsylvania Reports Increase in Deadly Deer Tick Virus
Recently, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) reported an unusually high infection rate of the deer tick virus within local samples. Deer tick virus (DTV) is a type of Powassan virus and can infect humans in as little as 15 minutes after a bite. Infection can result in mild symptoms such as headache, fever, and vomiting. Moreover, in severe cases, the infection can spread to the brain and result in seizures, loss of coordination, memory loss, difficulty talking, and confusion.
As part of the study, DEP collected ticks from Lawrence Township Recreational Park in Clearfield County. More than 90% of the ticks in the sample tested positive for the virus. According to the regulatory authority, this is the highest infection rate reported in any location in Pennsylvania. Previously, the country’s highest infection rate had been 11%.
As a result of the study, the health department issued a list of precautions to prevent tick bites. These included the use of an insect repellent, protective clothing, permethrin-based repellents, and avoidance of areas with ticks.