What is Powassan Virus and Where Have Cases Been Detected?

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As cases of the Powassan virus begin being reported in the U.S., including even one death this spring, many are wondering what the virus is and how can they prevent it?

Humans become infected with Powassan through the bite of an infected deer or woodchuck tick.

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.

In April, person in eastern Maine died from the rare virus, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said. The person from Waldo County contracted Powassan virus, developed neurologic symptoms and died while in the hospital, the center said in a news release. The person likely became infected in Maine, it said.

This week, a Connecticut man tested positive for the virus, marking the first case in the state this year, according to the Connecticut Department of Public Health, sparking an alert from health officials urging residents to take action to prevent tick bites.

According to the CDC, no cases have been reported in Illinois between the years of 2011 and 2020, but several have been reported in surrounding Midwest states.

In Wisconsin, 30 cases were reported in that same time frame. Another 35 were reported in Minnesota and just one in Indiana.

Still, 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 on Monday said blacklegged ticks have been found in 74 Illinois counties.

Symptoms of Powassan virus infection usually start one week to one 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 neurologic problems, such as brain or spinal cord inflammation. Severe infection may result in death. Many people infected with Powassan virus do not get sick.

Illinois officials issued a reminder Thursday, noting that May is Lyme Disease Prevention Month.

The Lake County Health Department and Community Health Center urged residents to take precautions against ticks.

“Although we are exposed to ticks year-round, they are most active during warmer months,” Alana Bartolai, ecological services program coordinator for the health department, said in a statement. “Ticks may be small in size, but we still need to protect ourselves, our families, and pets against the diseases they can carry, especially Lyme disease.”

Ticks live in and near wooded areas, tall grass and brush, experts say, and they can carry Lyme and other debilitating and sometimes fatal illnesses such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Tularemia, Ehrlichiosis, and Babesiosis.

“If you experience fever, headache, fatigue, or a rash after a tick bite, please consult your healthcare provider for possible testing and treatment,” Dr. Sana Ahmed, medical epidemiologist for the Lake County Health Department, said in a statement. “If left untreated, some tick-borne diseases can cause serious illnesses and may be fatal."

Here are some precautions officials advise to prevent tick bites:

  • Avoid wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaf litter. Walk in the center of trails so plants do not brush against you.
  • Wear light-colored protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts, pants, closed-toe boots or shoes, and a head covering or hat. Tuck long pants into your socks and tuck in your shirt.
  • Apply insect repellent containing DEET, picaridin, or IR3535 to exposed skin (except the face). Use products that contain permethrin on clothing. Always follow product instructions carefully.
  • Check yourself, your children and pets, and outdoor gear often for ticks.
  • Reduce tick habitats around your home by clearing leaf litter, mowing grass, cutting back weeds, and keeping the ground clean under bird feeders.

If you are bitten by a tick, promptly and properly remove it:

  • Using fine-tipped tweezers, grasp the tick near the skin and pull upward with slow, even pressure. Do NOT twist or jerk.
  • Do NOT burn the tick or smother it with oils or petroleum jelly, as this may cause the tick to spit up infected saliva into your skin.
  • Once the tick is removed, disinfect the bite area and wash hands with soap and water.
  • Make a note of the date you were bitten in case you need medical care later.

Removing ticks with 24 hours reduces the risk of disease. Instructions for tick removal and awareness of symptoms are available on the IDPH website.

Tick populations in your area can be monitored on the IDPH Tick Surveillance Mapping App.

NBC Chicago/Associated Press
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