Patient Story: Maine Man Dies after Contracting Powassan Virus from Tick

According to a recent article, a man in Maine has died after being bit by a tick and contracting the rare Powassan virus from the bite.

Powassan Virus

Powassan virus is spread to people by the bite of an infected tick. Although still rare, the number of reported cases of people sick from Powassan virus has increased in recent years. Most cases in the United States occur in the northeast and Great Lakes regions from late spring through mid-fall when ticks are most active. There are no vaccines to prevent or medicines to treat Powassan virus disease.

Symptoms:

Many people infected with Powassan virus do not have symptoms. For people with symptoms, the time from tick bite to feeling sick ranges from 1 week to 1 month.

  • Initial symptoms can include fever, headache, vomiting, and weakness.
  • Powassan virus can cause severe disease, including infection of the brain (encephalitis) or the membranes around the brain and spinal cord (meningitis).
  • Symptoms of severe disease include confusion, loss of coordination, difficulty speaking, and seizures.
    • Approximately 1 out of 10 people with severe disease die.
    • Approximately half of the people who survive severe disease have long-term health problems such as recurring headaches, loss of muscle mass and strength, and memory problems.

Treatment:

  • There is no medication to treat Powassan virus infection.
  • People with severe disease often need to be hospitalized to receive support for breathing, staying hydrated, or reducing swelling in the brain.
  • If you think you or a family member might have Powassan virus disease, see your healthcare provider.

A Case in Maine

An unnamed male Maine resident checked into the Waldo County hospital after having multiple neurological symptoms that could not be explained. While at the hospital, the man unfortunately died. Following his death, doctors were able to confirm that he had the Powassan virus, and that is what led to his death. It is likely the man contracted the virus while in Maine. The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention were the organization that confirmed this case of Powassan virus in Maine.

Caution for the Future

Despite there only being an average of 18 cases of the Powassan virus each year since 2011, the numbers have been rising slightly over the last few years. In fact, between 2015 and 2020 there was a 64% increase in cases of reported Powassan virus. Most of these cases are occurring in the northeast. Of the 178 cases of Powassan virus reported in the United States between 2015 and 2020, 12% of them resulted in death.

With the Powassan virus, many times people who are infected do not experience any symptoms. However, some people are not so lucky and experience symptoms such as confusion, headaches, loss of coordination, memory loss, meningitis, and encephalitis. These symptoms will usually appear within a month of the tick bite.

The virus is tick-borne, and it typically is spread through the deer tick and woodchuck tick (both types are found in the northeast). At this time of year, ticks are very active and are seeking hosts to bite, so it is important to use preventative measures. Since there is no vaccine for the virus currently, experts are urging people to be aware of their surroundings and avoid tick habitats (grassy or heavily wooded areas) when possible. Furthermore, it is recommended to treat your clothing and gear with permethrin and other insect repellents. Finally, always carefully check yourself, your pets, and your gear once returning indoors.

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