Extra caution urged this season after mild winter in Northeast and increase in tick population
KINGSTON–Health officials are sounding the alarm about the possible emergence of a rare, potentially fatal tick-borne virus that can cause brain swelling, respiratory problems and even death.
The Powassan virus, or POW for short, is worse than Lyme disease because it is transmitted quicker and about 10-30 percent of patients who get infected and show symptoms will not survive, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The same tick, Ixodes scapularis, also transmits Lyme disease, but infectious disease specialists say POW is more severe because it can be deadly and cause long-term neurological damage.
“Part of the concern is it can cause something called meningoencephalitis, which is inflammation of the covering of the brain or of the brain itself,” said Dr. Andrew Yanofsky, an infectious disease specialist at HealthAlliance of the Hudson Valley.
“Lyme disease typically isn’t fatal, however, with the Powassan virus, in some cases, you can develop the meningoencaphalitis, and about 10 percent of the time when a patient contracts encaphalitis, there’s a 10 percent mortality rate.
“Some cases are asymptomatic, but some of the symptoms to be looking out for would be headache, nausea, dizziness (and) confusion–in which case, you’d want to seek immediate medical care,” Yanofsky said.
“The other component is that roughly 50 percent of patients who contract Powassan virus develop long-term neurological deficits, including weakness, headaches and other neurological consequences.”
Because of the relatively mild winter and increase in ticks in the Mid-Hudson Valley, officials have expressed concern
that incidents will rise this year.
Unlike Lyme disease, those bitten by an infected tick will not develop a bull’s-eye rash, Yanofsky said.
“Typically, what you’ll be looking for are headaches, dizziness, confusion and fevers. These would be important signs that you are infected. Oftentimes, patients can also be asymptomatic, so not every patient bitten by this tick that carries the virus will develop those symptoms, but if you do, I would seek immediate medical care,” he said.
Yanofsky said data suggests that the infected tick can transmit the virus in less than 24 hours as opposed to Lyme bacterium, which can be passed from a tick to its human host between 24 and 36 hours.
“The larger concern is because it does cause encephalitis, which is not a process that is typically seen in Lyme disease, and if not caught early, you could have long-term neurological consequences,” he said.
In the past decade, researchers from the state health department’s Wadsworth Center Arbovirus Laboratories in Slingerlands identified the deer ticks carrying the virus in Saratoga, Albany, Rensselaer and Columbia counties.
According to the CDC (https://www.cdc.gov/powassan/statistics.html), only about 75 POW cases have been reported over the last 10 years, with the most (20) in Minnesota, followed by New York and Wisconsin (16 each).
Yanofsky said he is not aware of any documented cases in the immediate region.
There is no vaccine to prevent the illness, so the doctor was quick to point out that prevention is key.
“It’s a disease that’s not thought of commonly or as routinely tested for as Lyme disease, so recognizing the signs and symptoms is important this season.
“Certainly, I would take it seriously, though I don’t want people to overreact. I would just counsel vigilance and to ensure that you tick-check yourself and that appropriate repellents are being used. If you’re outdoors in a wooded area or high grass and you’re hiking or camping, you’d want to wear long clothing. Tuck your socks up over your pants, so they can’t crawl up underneath, and wear a hat.”
Yanofsky recommends using tick repellents like DEET, which can be sprayed directly onto skin and Permethrin, which can be used on clothing and shoes.
“You’d also want to check yourself thoroughly after any potential exposures, including the groin, armpits, behind the ears or other places patients don’t often look.”