Tick-borne Powassan virus sickens two in midcoast Maine

Posted May 31, 2017, at 2:01 p.m.
Last modified May 31, 2017, at 7:43 p.m.

Two residents of midcoast Maine are recovering from the Powassan virus, a rare but life-threatening illness spread by a tick bite.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said in a news release Wednesday that it was notified of the two cases last week. The two adults became ill in late April and were hospitalized with encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, caused by the virus. Both have since been discharged, the CDC said.

The cases were confirmed through testing at the U.S. CDC’s division in Fort Collins, Colorado.

Maine CDC did not release details about the individuals, including where in midcoast Maine they iwere infected or whether their cases were related.

The two infections bring Maine’s case count for Powassan to nine since 2000. The virus claimed the life of a Rockland-area artist in late 2013.

Powassan is only one of several diseases caused by ticks that are on the rise in Maine. Lyme disease, the most prevalent, rose to a record 1,464 cases last year. Anaplasmosis, a bacterial infection that can lead to similar long-term effects as Lyme without a proper diagnosis, climbed dramatically as well.

Powassan is spread by the bite of an infected deer or woodchuck tick and can cause fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion and seizures. Brain swelling is a potentially devastating complication that kills 10 percent of those who develop it, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About half of those who survive the infection suffer permanent neurological symptoms such as memory problems, facial tics and blurred vision. There is no vaccine or treatment other than keeping patients comfortable and hydrated during hospitalization.

Many patients, on the other hand, experience no symptoms at all, according to the CDC.

Symptoms can begin anytime from one week to one month after a tick bite.

What makes Powassan particularly troubling — in addition to the potentially debilitating symptoms — is the speed of its transmission. While a tick must be attached for 36 to 48 hours to transmit Lyme disease, according to health officials, Powassan has been shown to spread from tick to human in under an hour.

Maine researchers recently surveyed the state’s ticks for Powassan, and found the virus largely in the southern part of the state, but also in Augusta and on Swan’s Island in Hancock County. No Powassan was found east of Mount Desert Island or in northern Maine, though tick-borne infections are known to move and spread.

Powassan was first recognized in the town of Powassan, Ontario, in 1958. The illness is uncommon, with approximately 75 cases reported nationally over the last 10 years, primarily in the Northeast and Great Lakes regions, according to the CDC. But the number of cases has increased in recent years.

“Powassan, although rare, can be serious so it is important to be aware of your surroundings and take steps to avoid being bitten by ticks. Ticks are found in wooded and bushy areas so use caution if you go into these areas,” State Epidemiologist Dr. Siiri Bennett said in the Maine CDC release.

The CDC recommends the following tips to reduce the risk of disease spread by ticks:

— Choose light-colored clothing so it’s easier to spot ticks; wear long sleeves and and tuck your pants into your socks.

— Use an EPA-approved insect repellent.

— Check your skin and clothing for ticks and remove them promptly. Don’t miss warm, moist areas such as the ears, armpits and neck, and have someone else check your back.

— Wash possible tick bites with soap and water and apply an antiseptic.

— Keep your lawn mowed and tidy to remove tick habitat.

— If you spot an embedded tick, use a tick spoon or tweezers to grasp its mouth and pull it out with steady pressure. Don’t use petroleum jelly, hot matches or nail polish remover, which can increase the risk of infection.

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