V for New Virus in Town
Once again I am blogging my way from A to Z as part of the 2015 April A to Z Challenge! Come blog through the alphabet with me!
Move over summertime illnesses, there is a new virus in town. This year, people in the northeast have a new tick-borne disease to worry about. Declared worse than Lyme’s disease, Powassan virus is another reason to protect yourself when spending time outdoors.
Powassan virus belongs to the Flavivirus family, along with other notorious relatives such as West Nile virus, dengue virus and yellow fever virus. Like most Flaviviruses, Powassan virus is transmitted to mammals by the bite of an infected tick.
Powassan virus has been spreading throughout the northeast and the Great Lakes region. People get sick most often in the late spring, early summer and mid-fall – the time when ticks are abundant.
From reading some of the news articles appearing on social media, you would think there is an epidemic of Powassan. However, most people who are infected with the virus do not show symptoms. In reality, less than 60 people in the US have been diagnosed with Powassan in the last ten years. And the virus is not contagious among people. Humans are what virologists call “dead-end hosts” for Powassan. The virus can’t grow well enough in humans for it to be transmitted to any other animals. Therefore the virus life cycle ends in humans.
So what’s all the hype?
Although the number of cases of Powassan are rare, they are increasing. This chart shows the number of reported cases in the US over the last 10 years:
And even if most infected people are asymptomatic, the ones that do have symptoms are in for a rough ride.
Anywhere from 1 week to 1 month after being bitten with an infected tick, a person can show symptoms of disease. Powassan can cause encephalitis, a dangerous inflammation of the brain, and meningitis, inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal column. Infected people may experience the following acute symptoms:
- Memory loss
- Loss of coordination
- Speech impairment
Unfortunately there is no cure, treatment or vaccine for Powassan and about 10% of these infections will be fatal. After the acute infection, 50% of the survivors will have permanent problems such as recurrent headaches, muscle wasting and memory problems.
Keep yourself safe
Powassan is still extremely rare, but there are measures you can take to protect yourself from this virus and other tick-borne diseases, such as the more common, Lyme’s disease. To protect you and your kids from ticks:
- Try to avoid bushy or wooded areas during prime tick season
- Use insect repellent with 20-30% DEET
- After spending time outdoors, do full body scans for ticks and shower or bathe afterwards
- Dry clothes on high in the dryer to kill ticks
- Make sure your pets are protected too: keep them up to date with flea and tick preventative
If you are bitten by a tick and start to have symptoms, make sure you call your doctor.