Fun times, tan lines, and the threat of tick-borne diseases. Apparently, this is what summer has got in store for us this year.
As if blacklegged ticks in the country aren’t already teeming with enough pathogens to make us go crazy, there’s a new tick infection to add to the list — Powassan virus. Rumor has it, it’s even worse than Lyme disease.
What Is Powassan Virus?
Powassan or POW virus is a type of RNA flavivirus. It was first identified in Powassan, Ontario in 1958, thus its name.
Similar to other mosquito- and tick-borne diseases — such as Lyme disease, West Nile, St. Louis encephalitis, and tick-borne encephalitis viruses — the infection is passed onto humans once they’re bitten by the host of the virus.
In the United States, there are currently two types of POW virus:
• Lineage 1 POW virus — This type is associated with Ixodes cookei or Ixodes marxi ticks, which seldom bite humans.
• Lineage 2 POW virus — Otherwise known as the deer tick virus, this type is linked to Ixodes scapularis ticks, the primary vector of Lyme disease, human anaplasmosis, and babesiosis.
Over the last decade, there have been approximately 75 confirmed cases of POW virus disease reported to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.
More Lethal Than Lyme Disease
Although rare compared with other tick-borne diseases that are more prevalent and widespread in most parts of the United States, Powassan virus is stealthier and potentially fatal.
Dr. Jennifer Lyons, chief of the Division of Neurological Infections and Inflammatory Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, cautions that almost anyone is at risk of getting Powassan, particularly newborns, the middle-aged, the elderly, and the immunocompromised.
“About 15% of patients who are infected and have symptoms are not going survive. Of the survivors, at least 50% will have long-term neurological damage that is not going to resolve,” Lyons, who is also an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, told CNN.
Symptoms and Complications
Unfortunately, most people who become infected with Powassan virus hardly ever show any signs, except for common flu-like symptoms, including fever, headache, vomiting, and seizures.
The POW virus can reach the central nervous system and cause encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and meningitis (inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord), according to the CDC. What’s worse is that almost half of Powassan virus survivors are left with permanent neurological problems, such as recurrent headaches, muscle wasting, and memory decline, after a long and arduous battle with the infection.
A Looming Health Threat
As of now, there is no definitive data as to how fast and how far the Powassan virus has spread, although new reported cases mostly come from the Northeast and northern areas of the Midwest — including Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and New York.
The current CDC data are based on people who developed severe disease from the infection.
“The bottom line is that we should be very scared of it because nobody is safe from it. And it could be that it is emerging and will explode over the next few years,” Lyons warned.