A rare and deadly tick-borne virus might be on the rise in New England.
Dr. Jennifer Lyons, the director of the Division of Neurological Infections and Inflammatory Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, says doctors have seen an increase in cases of the Powassan virus over the past couple of years – from zero cases to one, two or three in a year.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports there have been 75 cases of the Powassan Virus in the United States in the past ten years, mostly in the Northeast and Great Lakes region. About 10 percent of Powassan cases are fatal. A woman in Maine died from Powassan in December of 2013.
Lyme disease has treatments, it has good treatments, and [for] Powassan we have no known effective treatments.
The rare virus is transmitted through ticks, which thrive in moist weather.
“With the possibility of there being a severe tick season during this summer … [we] want everyone to be aware that this virus is out there and that it's something that's not to be trifled with,” Lyons tells WGBH News' Morning Edition host Bob Seay in an interview.
Powassan is an encephalitis virus, which means that it infects the brain. Lyons says Powassan affects the parts of the brain that mediate consciousness, movement and abilities to breathe and maintain heart rate, among other issues.
“If and when somebody develops symptoms from an infection with Powassan virus, it is absolutely life threatening,” according to Lyons.
Unlike Lyme disease, a tick-borne virus that has treatments available, there is no known effective treatment for Powassan.
“Once somebody has an infection with Powassan, the only way to get rid of it is to get rid of it on your own,” she said. “Your own immune system basically has to eradicate the virus.”
Powassan virus symptoms can be non-specific at first and include fever, headache, muscle aches and pains, and maybe a rash. The virus will then exhibit symptoms of brain infection, which may include seizures, loss of consciousness, and inability to maintain the basic functions of life.
Lyons says the main way to avoid the rare virus is to avoid tick bites, which can be difficult given the presence of ticks in New England. The CDC recommends covering all exposed skin and conducting self-exams after time outside. Given the quick transmission of Powassan, a tick should be removed as quickly as possible to avoid the spread of disease.
“The word is beware, especially beware of ticks,” said Seay.
To listen to the entire interview between Bob Seay and Dr. Jennifer Lyons, click the audio player above.