Health and Wellness

Powassan virus is in the news: Here are 6 facts about the tick-borne illness

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Powassan virus, an extremely rare tick-borne illness, is trending after a severe case in a 3-year-old boy in Pennsylvania led to hospitalization.

While swimming in a neighbor's pool, Jonny Simoson's mom, Jamie, noticed a tick on his back which she successfully removed, she wrote in a Facebook post. Thinking nothing of it, the family resumed their normal activities until two weeks later when Jonny's daycare informed Jamie that he was, "mopey, had no appetite and complaining of a headache," she wrote on social media.

After two doctor's visits, Jonny had a fever of 104, Jamie told The New York Post. His white blood cell count rose to 30,000, and he was unresponsive for almost five days. Doctors still couldn't determine what the cause was. "Things got really scary at that point," Simoson said. "It was so frustrating searching for an answer. We were terrified that we might not be coming home with our child."

Following several attempts at diagnosis, doctors eventually discovered that Jonny had meningoencephalitis — an infection of the brain and the tissue surrounding it, according to the outlet. Jonny was treated with intravenous immunoglobin and 12 days later was discharged from the hospital.

It wasn't until three days after his discharge that Jonny tested posted for Powassan virus. But not all cases end like Jonny's. In May, a 90-year-old woman from Connecticut died from the tick-borne virus.

If you're wondering how concerned you should be about the increasing diagnosis of this rare illness, we talked to Jonathan Oliver, assistant professor at the school of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, about the virus. Here are a few facts.

Here's what you need to know about Powassan virus

  • Less than 200 cases were reported between 2011 and 2020, according to data collected by the CDC.
  • Powassan virus can only be transmitted by the bite of an infected tick in the U.S., based on reported cases.
  • Many people don't develop symptoms of Powassan virus, but occasionally, for those that do, the symptoms can be severe. "Typical symptoms early on are fever, headache, neck ache depending on what neural tissues are infected, and also vomiting," says Oliver. "As the disease progresses, it gets more severe, and so you get strong neurological involvement," like confusion and seizures.
  • Unfortunately, there is no real cure for Powassan virus. Treatments are usually for symptoms that occur as a result of contracting it. No vaccines are available to prevent the illness either, according to the CDC.
  • Cases commonly crop up in the upper Midwest, like Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the northeast, especially the New England area where Massachusetts is considered the northeastern epicenter of Powassan virus.
  • Often, diseases like the Powassan virus more commonly affect older people. "This child was just one of the unlucky few who does develop the disease, but it can potentially affect anybody," Oliver says.

'Prevention is always the best course for tick-borne diseases'

Thankfully, there are precautions you can take, and "prevention is always the best course for tick-borne diseases," according to Oliver. Using any bug repellent that has ingredients accepted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, like deet and lemon eucalyptus oil, may protect you from ticks, he says.

Your clothing choices could also keep you safe. Wearing long pants and tucking them into your socks is a good way to keep ticks on the outside of your clothes so you can pick them off easily, Oliver says. Doing daily tick checks is essential if you're in 'tick-habitat' because the sooner a tick is removed from your skin, the better, he notes.

If you know or suspect that you have been bitten by a tick and there's a possibility that it's been on your skin for a long period of time, Oliver suggests consulting with your doctor. Ticks carry other viruses like Lyme disease which is a lot more common than Powassan virus.

"Everyone should be aware and concerned of tick-borne diseases," Oliver says, "If you're out in potential tick habitat, you are likely getting exposed to ticks. Especially if you're in the upper Midwest or northeast where we do have a lot of deer ticks biting humans, there's a high potential for a variety of different diseases."

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