WASHINGTON – The Centers for Disease Control is warning of the emergence of a far deadlier tick-related virus than Lyme Disease – one that kills 10 percent of those infected and permanently disables the other 50 percent.
It’s called POW for short, or Powassan, and it, like Lyme, is carried by deer.
Recent cases have been noted in the Northeast U.S. and the Great Lakes states.
The virus can cause inflammation of the brain, leading to death in 10 percent of cases and permanent disability in 50 percent of cases.
Signs and symptoms of infection can include fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, seizures, and memory loss, according to the CDC. Long-term neurological problems may occur. There is no specific treatment, but people with severe POW virus illnesses often need to be hospitalized to receive respiratory support, intravenous fluids, or medications to reduce swelling in the brain.
“About 15% of patients who are infected and have symptoms are not going survive,” said Dr. Jennifer Lyons, chief of the Division of Neurological Infections and Inflammatory Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. “Of the survivors, at least 50 percent will have long-term neurological damage that is not going to resolve.”
You can reduce your risk of being infected with POW virus by using tick repellents, wearing long sleeves and pants, avoiding bushy and wooded areas, and doing thorough tick checks after spending time outdoors.
Although most infected people will never show symptoms, those who do become sick usually do so a few days to about a week after the tick bite, she said. The most common symptoms will be fever and headache.
“You basically feel nonspecific flu-like stuff,” Lyons said, including “muscle aches and pains; maybe you have a little rash on your skin, but almost certainly, you’ll have a fever and the headache.”
The unlucky few who develop a more serious illness will do so “very quickly over the next couple of days,” she said. “You start to develop difficulties with maintaining your consciousness and your cognition. … You may develop seizures. You may develop inability to breathe on your own.”
Just as there are no vaccines to prevent infection, there are also no treatments for Powassan.
“There are some experimental therapies we try when somebody comes in and they get here early enough and we get the therapy started early enough, but we have no idea if any of that works,” Lyons said.
Standard treatment includes intravenous fluids, though antiviral medications, systemic corticosteroids and other drugs have been tried in some patients.
Scientists also believe Powassan is on the rise based on studies that have identified an increasing number of infections in deer.
“It does seem that there are more and more deer that they’re finding that have been infected with this virus,” Lyons said. “We should expect it to increase in human disease incidence over the next few years.”
The Powassan virus was first discovered in Ontario, Canada, in 1958.
“A kid came down with an unspecified encephalitis,” or brain inflammation, Lyons explained. When the never-seen-before virus was identified, the scientists called it Powassan after the town where the child lived.
Only a couple of cases were seen each year from the 1950s to the early 2000s, when reports of cases in Canada and the U.S. started to rise. A paper suggested that the virus might have been found in far eastern Russia as well.
Dr. Daniel Pastula, an assistant professor of neurology, medicine (infectious diseases) and epidemiology at University of Colorado Denver and Colorado School of Public Health, explains that of the three ticks that can carry Powassan – Ixodes cookei, Ixodes marxi and Ixodes scapularis – the third “likes to bite humans” the most.