Deadly Tick-Borne Disease Has Arrived in New Jersey

But Lyme, Having Reached Record Levels, a More Persistent Threat
Jun 14, 2017

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the woods comes news of a tick-borne virus that is much more dangerous than Lyme disease. Like Lyme, the Powassan virus gets its name from the town in which it was first discovered in 1958: Powassan, Ontario. Like Lyme, Powassan virus is spread by ticks with one of the usual suspects being Ixodes scapularis, a.k.a. the deer tick, ubiquitous in New Jersey. As with Lyme, many people infected with the Powassan virus never develop symptoms. As with Lyme, the Powassan virus has been discovered in our state.

Unlike Lyme disease, which most medical experts say is not deadly although some advocates for increased research and funding claim it is, the Powassan virus is a confirmed killer. One of its most severe symptoms is encephalitis, inflammation of the brain. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says approximately 10 percent of POW virus encephalitis cases are fatal. Another difference is that although Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics, especially in its early stages, there are no medications to treat Powassan virus infection.

Another major difference between Lyme and the Powassan virus is that it appears ticks can transmit the latter to a human much more quickly than the former. According to the CDC, ticks must be attached to a human host for 36 to 48 hours or more before the Lyme disease bacterium can be transmitted. But research has shown that the Powassan virus can be transmitted in a much shorter time, perhaps even less than an hour.

The good news is that POW virus disease is rare. According to the CDC only about 75 cases of POW virus disease were reported in the United States in the past 10 years, most of which were in the northeastern and Great Lakes regions, including three in New Jersey. CDC graphs, on the other hand, show there have been over 10,000 confirmed cases of Lyme in the U.S. each year since 1995, with the number of confirmed or probable cases reaching almost 40,000 in 2015. The Garden State reported 3,932 confirmed cases and 923 probable cases in 2015 alone.

Early symptoms of POW virus disease include fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, loss of coordination, speech difficulties and seizures. Approximately half of survivors develop permanent neurological problems, such as recurrent headaches, muscle wasting and memory problems.

Brain swelling, though, is the worst POW symptom. People with severe Powassan virus disease must be hospitalized to receive medications to reduce that swelling.

That was the case in mid-April in Maine, where, according to the Bangor Daily News, two adults from that state’s mid-coast region were hospitalized and treated for Powassan virus-caused encephalitis. Both patients have since been discharged; the cases were confirmed through testing at the CDC labs in Fort Collins, Colo.

The three cases of confirmed POW virus disease in New Jersey have been in Warren and Sussex counties. The first case proved deadly when a 51-year-old Warren County woman died of encephalitis. The last case was reported in 2015.

Lyme disease was pushed out of the headlines in New Jersey over the past decade or so, replaced by stories about West Nile virus disease, which, like POW, can be much more deadly. But Lyme disease numbers are much more imposing.

According to the CDC, there were zero cases of West Nile among Jersey residents in 1999. That number had risen to 34 by 2003 but shrank dramatically for the rest of the decade, with it reaching double figures only once, 10 in 2008. It again bumped up considerably since 2010, with 30 reported cases that year, 48 in 2012 and 26 as recently as 2015.

Lyme disease numbers, as reported by the CDC, are much higher in New Jersey. There were 3,363 cases in 2005. By 2009 that number had increased to 4,598. It dipped again, falling to 2,589 by 2014. But in 2015, the last year for which CDC figures have been released, there were 4,855 confirmed or suspected cases in the state, making it perhaps the worst year for Lyme disease in state history.

So there’s plenty of reason to avoid ticks, even if another case of Powassan virus disease is never diagnosed in New Jersey. And that’s the key to avoiding POW, Lyme and several other tick-borne diseases.

The CDC recommends wearing light-colored clothing so it is easier to spot ticks, advises the wearing of long sleeves and says you should tuck your pants into your socks. It also says you should use an EPA-approved insect repellent, check your skin and clothing frequently for ticks and remove them promptly using a tick spoon or tweezers to grasp its mouth and pull it out with gentle but steady pressure, wash possible tick bites with soap and water, apply an antiseptic and keep your lawn mowed to remove tick habitat.

— Rick Mellerup

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