Health & Environment

Rare, dangerous tick-borne illness cropping up more in Northeast


A rare and potentially fatal tick-borne illness is becoming increasingly prevalent throughout the Northeast, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Cases of the Neuroinvasive Powassan Virus, or POW, are few and far between but are often serious and becoming more common — both in terms of diagnosis and notoriety. Earlier this month Powassan, which can cause brain inflammation, caused a stir in Connecticut when state officials there announced the disease is starting to show up in more deer ticks in Bridgeport and Branford.

The story has since received national news coverage.

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Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention bar graph. Read more here.
Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention bar graph. Read more here.

While many people who become infected with Powassan virus do not develop any symptoms, the disease can cause encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, and meningitis, which is inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord, according to the CDC. Between 2004 and 2013, seven deaths have been linked to the virus.

Suffolk County experts urge caution, but note that cases of the disease are extremely rare.

“It would be very, very hard to predict how much of a risk it would constitute,” said John Rasweiler of Cutchogue, who serves on Southold Town’s deer management committee and the Suffolk County tick control advisory committee.

Scott Campbell, a public health entomologist and head of the Arthropod-Borne Disease Laboratory for the Suffolk County Department of Health Services, said the Powassan virus has likely been on Long Island for “a while,” but has only been recently confirmed in the region’s ticks.

No cases of humans infected with the disease have been reported on Long Island, according to the most recent CDC data.

“It is a public health concern,” Dr. Campbell said. “One good thing is the infection rates appear to be very low. Maybe one to six percent of the tick population [carries Powassan.] With Lyme disease that can be anywhere from 15 to 50 percent.”

By comparison, there are roughly 300,000 cases of Lyme disease in the United States annually, according to new CDC data.

Though the occurrence rate of the Powassan virus is low, the CDC reports incidents are on the rise and can be much more harmful than Lyme.

Powassan, Dr. Campbell said, is a viral disease similar to West Nile virus and cannot be treated with antibiotics. It is particularly dangerous because of its short incubation time, he said.

“The concern is it doesn’t take very long for this virus to be transmitted,” he said. “Where as with Lyme disease you have many hours to get the tick off before you have transmission, [Powassan] can be transmitted in as little as 15 minutes.”

Signs and symptoms of infection may include fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, seizures and memory loss, the CDC reports.

Dr. Campbell said the best way to avoid contracting Powassan virus is the same way you guard yourself from every tick borne illness — don’t get bit.

“The take home message is to prevent tick bites,” Dr. Campbell said. “If you are not bitten by a tick you are not going to be infected by pathogens no matter how much of a public concern they are.”

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