If talk of this year’s potential tick apocalypse wasn’t bad enough, alarming news of a new tick-borne disease called Powassan virus has taken the internet and local TV stations by storm. While it certainly raises cause for concern, it’s important to get some perspective on this rare disease: know the basics about what it is, how and where you can contract it, and how to protect you and your family.
What are its symptoms?
Fortunately, most people who are exposed to the virus never develop disease. Signs and symptoms of POWV include fever, headache, vomiting, and confusion and disorientation from meningitis and encephalitis (brain swelling). The incubation period ranges from one week to one month from the time of the tick bite.
Roughly 10-15% of people who have developed symptoms have died, and 50% of those surviving a symptomatic illness have long term neurological problems like frequent headaches and memory difficulties. Since it is a virus, antibiotics cannot be used to treat Powassan. Treatment for severe symptoms involves supportive care at a hospital. Currently, there is no vaccine to prevent POWV.
Which ticks carry it?
How common is it?
While it’s getting a lot of attention, POWV is still very rare. Only 75 cases have been reported in the U.S. in the last decade (compared to more than 300,000 cases of Lyme disease reported each year), and most cases occurred in the upper Midwestern states around the Great Lakes or in the northeastern states. On average, less than 10 cases are reported each year, and less than 5% of blacklegged (deer) ticks are carrying the virus. Compare this with Lyme disease, where roughly 20% of nymphs and 50% of adult females are infected with the bacteria.
How do I protect myself?
Because the virus can be transmitted so quickly, tick bite prevention is absolutely crucial. Wearing permethrin-treated clothing and footwear and avoiding tick habitat should be your first priorities. Consider wearing skin repellent like DEET (15-33%) as well (reapplying every 4 hours). Conduct regular tick checks both while outdoors and afterwards to ensure you’ve removed any tick found biting. Be sure to use a safe tick removal strategy, take a photo of and save any ticks you find for potential testing.