As cases of Powassan virus begin to be reported in the United States, including even a recent death, many are wondering what the virus is and how can they prevent it?
The tick-borne disease is responsible for at least one death in Maine so far this spring, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention officials said.
And while experts say cases are rare, they’re also urging anyone in states where some ticks are found, including Illinois, to watch for signs and take precautions.
Here’s what you need to know:
What is the Powassan virus and how do you get it?
Humans are infected with Powassan through the bite of an infected deer or groundhog tick.
The rare disease is often serious and can lead to brain or spinal cord infections, according to the CDC.
How common is the virus?
Cases of the virus are rare in the United States, with about 25 cases reported each year since 2015.
So far this year, one death has already been reported.
The Maine CDC confirmed Thursday that one person in Sagadahoc County had died from the virus.
“The adult developed neurological symptoms and died in hospital after being infected, likely in Maine,” the state reported. “This is the first case of tick-borne disease identified in the state this year.”
According to the CDC, no cases were reported in Illinois between 2011 and 2020, but several were reported in surrounding Midwestern states.
In Wisconsin, 30 cases were reported during the same period. Another 31 have been reported in Minnesota and just one in Indiana.
Where is the virus?
Powassan virus infections have been reported in the United States, Canada and Russia, according to the CDC.
In the United States, cases are most commonly seen in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions, particularly in late spring, early summer, and mid-fall.
Deer ticks, also known as blacklegged ticks, can be found in Illinois, as the Great Lakes region is one of the most common locations for the species.
The Illinois Department of Public Health reports that the species has been found “sporadically” in several Illinois counties, but in recent years it has only been common in certain counties, particularly in the north from Illinois.
What are the symptoms of Powassan virus?
Symptoms of Powassan virus infection usually begin a week to a month after the tick bite. People who get sick may have fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, seizures or memory loss, the center said.
Some people may experience serious neurological problems, such as inflammation of the brain or spinal cord. A severe infection can lead to death. However, many people infected with the Powassan virus do not get sick.
How can you prevent it and what else do you need to know about ticks?
Illinois officials issued a reminder earlier this month, noting that May is Lyme Disease Prevention Month.
“We encourage anyone who enjoys spending time outdoors to educate themselves on how to protect themselves against tick-borne diseases. Please check out our many IDPH resources and join us as we all work together to fight the bite,” IDPH Director Dr Sameer Vohra said in a statement.
Ticks live in and near wooded areas, tall grass and brush, experts say, and they can carry Lyme and other debilitating and sometimes fatal diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, ehrlichiosis and babesiosis.
“If you become ill with fever and/or rashes after being in an area where ticks may have been, contact your health care provider,” IDPH said in its statement. “Some tick-borne diseases can be life-threatening.” For example, if Rocky Mountain spotted fever is left untreated, it can lead to death as quickly as five days after symptoms appear.”
Here are some precautions recommended by the authorities to avoid tick bites:
- Walk in the center of the trails. Avoid wooded and brushy areas with tall grass and leaf litter.
- Wear light-colored clothing to make tick detection easier. Tuck long pants into socks and boots.
- Apply an EPA-registered insect repellent containing 20% DEET, picaridin, IR3535, or lemon eucalyptus oil according to label instructions.
- Treat clothing and equipment with products containing 0.5% permethrin. Permethrin can be used to treat boots, clothing and camping gear and remains protective after multiple washes
- Perform tick checks on the whole body of family members (armpits, ears, navel, behind the knees, between the legs, waist, hair and scalp) every two to three hours. Also check for any equipment or pets taken on outings.
- Put your clothes in the dryer on high power for 10 minutes (or an hour for damp clothes) to kill ticks.
- Take a shower within two hours of entering the interior.
If you are bitten by a tick, remove it quickly and correctly:
- Using fine-tipped tweezers, grasp the tick close to the skin and pull upward with slow, even pressure. DO NOT twist or shake.
- Do NOT burn the tick or suffocate it with oils or petroleum jelly, as this may spit infected saliva onto your skin.
- Once the tick is removed, disinfect the bite area and wash your hands with soap and water.
- Write down the date you were bitten in case you need medical attention later.
Removing ticks within 24 hours reduces the risk of disease. Instructions for tick removal and symptom awareness are available on the IDPH website.
Tick populations in your area can be monitored on the IDPH Tick Surveillance Mapping app.