Tick-Borne Powassan Virus Often Deadly


In Poughkeepsie, New York, a teenage high school student died on August 5 of the tick-borne disease, POW, aka the Powassan virus. The often deadly virus is named after after Powassan, Ontario, where it was first discovered in 1958. There have so far been two types of Powassan virus found in North America.

High school student, Joseph Elone, 17, had a minor cough, fatigue and a headache for about two weeks. There were no signs the illness would be fatal, according to his family. A doctor he visited checked him for Lyme disease and strep throat but the tests were negative.

None of the teen’s symptoms suggested that the City of Poughkeepsie 17-year-old would collapse in front of his home on a mild August night.

Elone, who loved music and the environment, would never wake.

According to his family, Joseph held on for about seven hours longer, fighting for his life; but, on August 5, shortly after midnight, the teen succumbed to myocarditis and meningitis, possibly from a rare virus, Powassan encephalitis.

Kari Reiber, the Dutchess County Health Department commissioner, stated:

The initial autopsy [diagnosed] Powassan virus [infection], a very, very rare tick virus.”

Reiber said that an initial test did come back positive, but other tests had to be done:

It was a screening test and that was positive, but in order to make the diagnosis and confirm the diagnosis, further testing has to be done.”

The same deer ticks that transmit Lyme disease also spread the Powassan virus. Initial diagnosis can be difficult, as its symptoms are the same as those of West Nile virus infection.

According to Reiber, if you’re out in the woods were you might encounter deer ticks, what you should do to protect yourself is to:

Wear loose, bright clothing and use appropriate insect repellent. That will help.”

This fall, Elone’s fellow students at Poughkeepsie High School will have to deal with the loss of one of their own.

Lyme disease is bad enough, with about 25% of patients, according to the Boston Globe, continuing to experience symptoms such as debilitating headaches, sore joints, nausea, etc., long after they finish the taking the standard month-long treatment of oral antibiotics.

Why do the symptoms of Lyme disease often persists even after taking antibiotics?

Doctors have puzzled over why these patients don’t seem to improve even after taking the oral antibiotics. They should be fine, but they’re nowhere near it. Some theorize that in certain cases, the bacteria might have somehow dodged the antibiotics, possibly infiltrating the body’s nervous system. Others have considered the possibility that the Lyme disease may have triggered a different illness, and that perhaps patients stay on antibiotics long-term.

How deadly is the Powassan virus?

The Powassan virus is rarer than Lyme disease, but this could change over time. It’s similar to the West Nile virus carried by mosquitoes, and it can cause encephalitis and meningitis.

One type of POW virus, according to the Minnesota Department of Health’s website:

…is carried by Ixodes scapularis (known as the blacklegged tick or deer tick), the same tick that transmits Lyme disease, human anaplasmosis, and babesiosis. The blacklegged tick is common in many wooded areas of north central, east central, and southeast Minnesota.

“Another type of POW virus is carried by Ixodes cookei, a related tick species that usually feeds on woodchucks or other medium-sized mammals instead of humans. I. cookei has also been found in wooded areas in Minnesota.”

The Poughkeepsie Journal reports that while only 6% of the ticks in New York’s Hudson Valley were found to carry the Powassan virus in a recent study, compared to about 50% for Lyme, the former is far more lethal. About a third of those afflicted by the POW virus die.

The emerging prevalence of these nasty tick-borne diseases has prompted Sen. Chuck Schumer to (last week) call on the CDC to launch a study of Powassan and to expand research into all tick-borne diseases.

Doctor all too often diagnose, or misdiagnose, people with Lyme disease when they might have a different and potentially more lethal tick-borne disease, such as the Powassan virus. New studies show that we need a much broader view of “all the illnesses tiny ticks can carry, the big problems they can create, and what doctors and patients can do to stem the tide.”

How long does a tick have to be attached to you to transmit POW?

One of the many differences between Lyme disease and the Powassan virus is that a tick can transmit the latter by only being attached to a person for as little as 15 minutes.

By contrast, for a person to contract Lyme disease, a tick with it must be attached to a person for 24-48 hours, and to contract anaplasmosis, the time has to be anywhere from 12-24 hours.

The signs and symptoms of POW can include fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, loss of coordination, speech difficulties, and memory loss.

While POW is fairly rare, it seems to be on the increase. From 1958-2010, fewer than 60 cases were reported in the U.S. and Canada, but from 2008-2012, 21 cases of POW disease have been reported in Minnesota alone, according to the Minnesota Dept. of Health website. These 21 people had either lived in or visited wooded areas in north central or east central Minnesota.

When you’re out camping or hiking in the woods, make sure you follow the advice mentioned in this article, and use bug spray. While the tick-borne disease called the Powassan virus is often deadly, at least it is still relatively rare, but it is better to be safe than sorry, and try to prevent any contact with ticks if at all possible.

Written by: Douglas Cobb

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