People who live in New York's Ulster County are on alert after a local resident recently died of a rare tick-borne illness. The illness, known as Powassan virus, is an often serious disease that's spread by infected ticks.
This is the first known case of a person who has been diagnosed with Powassan virus in the state of New York this year, according to the Ulster County Health Department. Details about the case are scarce, but the health department did say that the person who died had "additional underlying health conditions."
Still, the organization is warning local residents to "take every precaution necessary" to avoid being bitten by ticks, like tucking your pants into your socks, wearing effective tick repellents, and doing a full-body check on yourself and your pets for tick bites after being outdoors.
How common is Powassan virus?
"This is rare," says Amesh A. Adalja, MD, a board-certified infectious disease physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. While reports of cases have gone up in recent years, the highest number of annual cases in the past decade was 33 in 2017, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most cases of the disease have been restricted to a few states, including Wisconsin, Minnesota, New York, and Massachusetts.
Deaths from Powassan are even more rare-just 12 people have died from the virus in the past decade, per CDC data.
However, the Powassan virus recently started showing up in deer ticks (which also carry Lyme disease), which may increase the odds that more people will be exposed, says Richard Watkins, MD, an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and an associate professor of internal medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University.
Another scary fact: Ticks can transmit Powassan with 15 minutes after they bite a person, Dr. Watkins says.
What are the symptoms of Powassan virus?
People typically start to feel sick anywhere from a week to a month after being bitten by an infected tick, the CDC says. Most people don't have symptoms, but those who develop them can experience the following:
Powassan virus can also infect the central nervous system and the brain, leading to serious conditions like encephalitis (an infection of the brain) or meningitis (infection of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord), Dr. Adalja says. That can cause symptoms like confusion, loss of coordination, trouble speaking, and seizures.
About half of the people who have a severe form of Powassan and survive end up with long-term health problems like recurring headaches, loss of muscle mass and strength, and memory problems, the CDC says.
How is Powassan virus treated?
Since Powassan is a virus, it can't be treated with antibiotics. Instead, supportive care, like keeping a patient well-hydrated, is used. People with severe forms of Powassan usually need to be hospitalized and may need support to help them breathe, stay hydrated, and reduce swelling in the brain, the CDC says.
Overall, people shouldn't freak out about this. "It still remains a pretty rare disease," Dr. Adalja says. But, he adds, the seriousness of Powassan just underscores the need to do your best to prevent tick bites-so check out these tips on keeping ticks away from your home (and body) and stock up on these repellents before heading outdoors.