Rare Tick-Borne Disease Increasing in U.S.

Female and Nymph Ticks. Getty Images, licensed to About.com

It is a rare disease, but it is one for which there is no current cure, it’s fatal in 10% of cases. And it is spread by ticks.

According to CDC, Powassan (POW) one of a group of arthropod-borne viruses, spread by infected ticks, that can cause inflammation of the brain (encephalitis). Illness occurs within a week to a month from the time a person is bitten by an infected tick. Symptoms of the disease can include fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, seizures, and memory loss. Long-term neurologic problems also may occur.

Although only about 60 cases of POW virus disease were reported in the United States over the past 10 years, some states, particularly those in the Northeastern states, are beginning to see a rise in POW-infected ticks and human cases of the disease. As an April 15, 2015, article by NBC Connecticut reports: “A rare but potentially deadly virus has made its way to Connecticut and could soon be transferred from ticks to humans, according to state officials. Human cases of the virus have been reported in other states in the northeast, including New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Maine.

Additionally, 10% to 30% of those who contract the disease die from it. This is primarily because there currently is no specific medicine to cure or treat POW; but people with severe POW virus illnesses often need to be hospitalized to receive respiratory support, intravenous fluids, or medications to reduce swelling in the brain.

In addition to the northeastern U.S., human cases of the disease have been found in the Great Lakes region, as well as in Canada and Russia. These cases occur primarily in the late spring, early summer and mid-fall when ticks are most active.

According to CDC, many people who become infected with Powassan (POW) virus do not develop any symptoms, however the virus can infect the central nervous system and cause encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and meningitis (inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord). Additionally, about half of those who do survive the disease have permanent neurological symptoms, such as recurrent headaches, muscle wasting and memory problems. 

If you think you or a family member may have POW virus disease, it is important to consult your healthcare provider.


Tick Bite Prevention

Reducing exposure to ticks is the best defense against Powassan virus disease, Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and other tickborne infections. To reduce exposure and the chance of being bitten and contracting any of these diseases, CDC recommends:

  • Wear long sleeves and pants, tucking pants into socks when possible.
  • Use insect repellents that contain 20 to 30% DEET (N, N-diethyl-m-toluamide) on exposed skin and clothing for protection that lasts up to several hours. Products containing 0.5% permethrin can also be used on clothing and gear, such as boots, pants, socks and tents. This will remain protective through several washings or pre-treated clothing can be purchased. (For other EPA-registered repellents, see the Online Insect-Repellent Product Search Tool section of EPA Makes Insect Repellents Easier to Use.) Always follow product instructions when using any insecticide
  • Avoid wooded and bushy areas with high grass and leaf litter. When hiking in such areas, walk in the center of trails.
  • conduct a thorough tick checks after spending time outdoors.
  • After spending time in suspected or infested tick areas, conduct a full-body tick check using a hand-held or full-length mirror to view all parts of your body. Parents should check their children for ticks under the arms, in and around the ears, inside the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the waist, and especially in their hair. Also examine pets and gear and put clothes in a dryer on high heat for an hour to kill any remaining ticks.

    For more tips on tick prevention, see The Deer Tick - Identification and Prevention