Deaths from New Tick Virus Expected to Rise – How to Protect Yourself

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May 19 2017 - 12:37pm
Common Wood Tick

A new tick virus that is significantly worse than Lyme disease which is a bacterial infection carried in deer ticks and treatable with antibiotics if caught early is being found in multiple states. Tick diseases are expected to rise this year due to heavy rains and a mild winter. So far, one woman from Maine has died this year of a new viral tick disease called Powassan.

What makes this new virus so dangerous is that it can lead to brain swelling. Initial symptoms may take weeks or months to appear. A 24-year-old Cape Cod man, Tucker Lane, noticed two ticks in June of last year while taking a shower and wasn’t concerned having grown up where ticks are prevalent. However in September while working outside he developed a severe headache for which he took ibuprofen. Later that night the headache worsened and he began having fever, chills, vomiting and double vision. He made two trips to doctors who initially accused him of opiate abuse and thought his symptoms were drug related, so diagnosis and treatment were delayed. That’s when his mother called an ambulance.

The hospital finally did an MRI of his brain which showed tremendous swelling and he was disoriented, having trouble speaking, and losing consciousness. Lane was transferred to Brigham and Women's Hospital, where Jennifer Lyons, a neurologist said, “He was already in trouble. He had a lot of inflammation in the very deep parts of his brain." However Lyons didn’t know what was causing the severe swelling. Within 48 hours he was in a deep coma. Eventually Lane was diagnosed with Powassan virus, which causes brain swelling or encephalitis which can cause seizures, permanent brain damage, and can be deadly. Luckily, Lane did survive but will no longer take tick bites for granted. Those who survive may have long-term complications such as memory loss.

The reason Powassan virus is so dangerous is the short amount of time it takes for the tick to infect a person with the virus. A Powassan infection can occur in just 15 minutes, significantly shorter than the 36 to 48 hours it can take for Lyme.

Ticks are reservoirs of disease. There are at least a dozen illnesses caused by bacteria or viruses carried in ticks. In addition to Powassan, t least four new tickborne pathogens have been discovered in patients in the United States in recent years – two bacterial species, Borrelia miyamotoi and Ehrlichia muris-like agent; and two viruses, Heartland virus and Bourbon virus.

Scientists and researchers who study these illnesses are concerned because cases increase with increases in the density of ticks and usually what causes these increases is weather. This year we have the “perfect storm” of circumstances with heavy rains and flooding, as well as a very mild winter.

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Tick diseases have been around for a long time. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) began identifying them back in the 1980’s. The CDC started a new project in 2017 to identify and track new types of viral and bacterial organisms carried in ticks. They will use advanced molecular detection (AMD) methods means to identify these organisms and discover how they affect people in order to develop better treatment methods and make diagnosis faster and easier which will save lives. The use of AMD will mean that the days of random tickborne pathogen discovery and diagnosis are nearly over.

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