CONSUMER HEALTH

What You Need to Know About the Powassan Virus and Ticks This Summer

In the wake of the recent death of an 80-year-old, Hunterdon County man from a rare but sometimes deadly virus spread by ticks, New Jersey has been forced to, once again, confront our growing tick problem.

The virus in question is called Powassan, a neuroinvasive disease, first discovered in 1958 in Powassan, Ontario—its eventual namesake.

“The Powassan virus is typically found in the northern parts of the country: Minnesota, Wisconsin and eastern Canada. It can cause encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, and in its worst form can cause a brain infection,” Dr. Ashwin Jathavedam, Chief of Infectious Disease at Englewood Health said.

While many who contract the virus will display no symptoms at all, those who do will experience flu-like indicators, including fever, headache, confusion and even seizures. According to Dr. Jathavedam, by the time a patient seeks medical attention for the Powassan virus, they are typically quite ill.

There is no known cure for the Powassan virus and, apart from medical assistance like respiratory support and intravenous fluids, it’s up to the immune system of the individual to fight it off. For this reason, contracting the virus can be deadly for vulnerable populations including the very young, the very old and the already immunocompromised.

There are several types of ticks that have been known to carry the Powassan virus, some of which are more inclined to infect animals like rodents or groundhogs rather than humans. One tick in particular, the deer tick, which is also known for carrying Lyme disease, can be a vector for human contraction of the virus.

In the case of the 80-year-old man who recently died after contracting the Powassan virus, it is unknown what kind of tick he came into contact with and ultimately contracted the virus from.

“The overall risk for contracting this virus is quite low. In the 10 years from 2005-2015 there were only 50-60 detected cases, so it is still pretty rare,” Dr. Jathavedam said.

In total, there have been nine known cases of Powassan virus in NJ, six of which were found in Sussex County. Dr. Jathavedam explained that there is a direct correlation between how rural and forested a region is and the risk of tick-related illnesses.

“The rates of Powassan are on the incline due to an overall increase in the tick population. Climate change also contributes to this, as it affects the animal and tick populations’ natural habitats. The third factor here is that, as humans continue to encroach upon previously wooded areas, we are brought in closer proximity to these ticks,” Dr. Jathavedam said.

Powassan does not spread human-to-human; so, prevention of the virus relies on implementing tick safety measures, especially during the coming summer months, such as wearing bug spray, putting long hair in tight braids, avoiding walking in tall grass and being mindful when interacting with livestock.

“I know it’s hard during the summer, but one of the best things you can do is wear long sleeves and long pants, especially if you’re hiking or otherwise in a forested or rural area. After being in such an area, doing a full-body check on yourself and especially on children is important,” Dr. Jathavedam said.

Health officials in NJ have advised the public that an infected tick must be attached to an individual for several hours before it can transmit the virus. So, if you do find a tick on you or your child, your next step should be removing it swiftly with tweezers.

If you choose to dispose of the tick, do so in a sealed plastic bag and monitor yourself for any abnormal symptoms over the next several weeks. If you’re more inclined to worry about these things, you can choose to bring the tick (in its sealed plastic bag) to a doctor, who can send it to a lab for testing.

Dr. Jathavedam explained that, despite the rising presence of ticks, the chances of contracting Powassan are still very low and we should not allow the fear of ticks to prevent us from going on hikes and engaging in outdoor activities.

“There are bigger things to worry about. Ticks are simply something we should be aware of this summer,” Dr. Jathavedam said.

Posted June 2019