PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Most people have heard of Lyme disease, an illness caused by bacteria carried by deer ticks, but they can also carry something else that can make you sick — Powassan virus.
“Anytime there’s a disease spread by a tick, if that tick is present in that area, we have to be alert for it,” says Dr. Amesh Adalja, the UPMC Center for Biosecurity.
The virus can cause encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain, which can start with fever, headache, confusion and weakness.
One in 10 cases is fatal. Fifty percent of survivors have permanent neurologic damage.
But it is very rare; only 50 cases in the past 10 years, and in our state, only a single case in northeast Pennsylvania.
That doesn’t mean it’s not out there. It often isn’t tested for because there is no specific treatment.
The key is to be on the lookout for ticks on yourself after you come indoors. It takes a while to get infected, but usually less than 12 hours.
“It takes them at least a day for their mouth parts to push into your skin. They have these teeth that they push in and spread it out, push in and spread out,” Bill Todaro, an entomologist at the Allegheny County Health Department. “Once you start to bleed, then it spits saliva in there and anticoagulant, and that’s when you can possibly get a pathogen in there with the saliva.”
A pathogen such as Powassan virus, which the tick can pick up from woodchucks, mice and squirrels. But other pathogens causing other diseases may be on board, too.
“Babesiosis, which is like a malarial parasite, anaplasmosis, erlichiosis,” says Todaro. “All of them are being carried by the deer tick, which is the most common tick anywhere in the northeast now.
A severe winter can cut down on the number of deer ticks during the warmer outdoor months, which is the pattern Todaro has noticed.
Dr. Andrew Nowalk, a Lyme disease specialist watches tick patterns closely, but hasn’t heard much clamor about Powassan virus.
“It’s of interest to us though, because we didn’t used to see Lyme disease. And now we see Lyme disease,” says Dr. Nowalk, of Children’s Hospital. “So keeping track of newer tick-borne diseases, I think, is important for specialists in the area.”
It’s possible, because it is so uncommon, many doctors simply don’t think of it.
“The increased awareness of Powassan virus will cause more people to test for it, and we will probably find that number of cases go up as we find it,” says Dr. Adalja.
Luckily, it is not contagious person to person; you can only catch it from a tick. Unfortunately, there is no specific antiviral treatment or vaccine for Powassan virus.