Tick-Borne Powassan Virus — Possibly Deadlier Than Lyme Disease — On The Rise

With summer just weeks away, experts have sounded the alarm on the Powassan virus, a rare tick-borne pathogen that might be deadlier than Lyme disease.

According to the experts, the Powassan virus can result in a more severe illness than the Lyme disease bacterium, with about 1 in 7 of Powassan cases leading to death. "About 15 percent of patients who are infected and have symptoms are not going [to] survive," Dr. Jennifer Lyons, Division of Neurological Infections and Inflammatory Diseases chief at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, told CNN.

"Of the survivors, at least 50 percent will have long-term neurological damage that is not going to resolve."
Meanwhile, deaths from Lyme disease are so rare that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention doesn't even track them.

"Death from Lyme disease is rare as all stages are treatable by antibiotics," Dr. Amesh A. Adalja, an affiliated scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, told SELF.

Lyons stressed that anyone who gets bitten by a tick is at risk for Powassan virus infection, especially newborns, the elderly, and the immunocompromised. According to the CDC, approximately 75 cases of Powassan virus have been reported over the past decade, with most cases having occurred in the northeastern and Great Lakes regions.

Experts warn that Powassan virus infections are most likely in late spring, early summer, and mid-fall. While no one can say how many cases will be recorded this year, experts are expecting an increase in infections because of the warmer winter, which has caused a surge in tick populations.

Even more worrying is that the Powassan virus is now being transmitted by ticks that bite humans. According to the CDC, Powassan was historically carried by the Ixodes cookei and Ixodes marxi ticks, which don't typically bite humans. Now, however, the Powassan virus has been found in Ixodes scapularis or deer ticks, which are also responsible for the spread of Lyme disease.

This means that more people could potentially get infected with Powassan virus. To add to that, the Powassan virus can be transmitted within 15 minutes after an infected tick attaches to a person. In contrast, the Lyme disease bacterium takes a minimum of 36 to 48 hours to be transmitted.

Luckily, the Powassan virus is still considered rare, with an average of just seven cases a year reported between 2006 and 2015 in the United States. According to the CDC, tick-borne Powassan virus neuroinvasive disease has only been reported in a few states. These include Massachusetts, Maine, New York, New Jersey, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin. The number of occurrences of Powassan virus is tiny compared to Lyme disease cases, of which there were 28,453 in 2015 alone, with an additional 9,616 reported probable cases.

But while the Powassan virus disease is still rare, experts say that it's still best to try to avoid being exposed to ticks. Caution should be taken year-round, but people should be extra careful between April and September when the insects are most active.

Powassan virus symptoms include fever, headache, muscle pain, weakness, chills, vomiting, and paralysis. "Some people will only have a fever while others develop neurological symptoms such as confusion and seizures," Dr. Richard Watkins, an infectious diseases physician in Akron, Ohio, told SELF.
"Long-term neurological complications are common."
According to the CDC, about half of Powassan virus survivors will have permanent neurological symptoms like memory problems, recurring headaches, and muscle wasting. The Powassan virus can also cause meningitis or swelling of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord. It can also lead to encephalitis or swelling of the brain, which can be fatal or lead to permanent disability.
There are currently no vaccines or medications for the treatment or prevention of Powassan virus infection.

[Featured Image by Stringer/Getty Images]