The Dangerous Tick-Borne Illness You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

Closeup of a tick on a plant straw

The Dangerous Tick-Borne Illness You’ve Probably Never Heard Of:

Move over, Lyme disease: there’s another tick-borne illness in town, and it is dangerous and the number of cases is increasing.

The disease is called Powassan virus (POW). It recently made the news when state health officials confirmed a baby from Connecticut contracted the virus, and it almost killed the young boy.

Liam Phillips was five months old when his battle with the rare and debilitating illness began. His mother, Desiree Phillips, recently discussed the family’s ordeal with ABC57.

“It was the beginning of November. He started vomiting.” she explained.

Liam was initially diagnosed with pneumonia. A couple of days after that diagnosis, he developed a fever of 103. At the emergency room, his fever was brought down and he was sent back home.

Then things took a turn for the worse:

Two nights after that visit, Desiree Phillips awoke in the middle of the night to find Liam unresponsive, his body looked contorted and he appeared to be in serious trouble. “His head was all the way to the right, his right arm was out to the right … He wasn’t responsive,” she recalled. But then he got better.

Frightened, Liam’s parents took him to their primary care physician, who recommended they go directly to the Children’s Medical Center in Hartford. As they were leaving, Liam had a seizure. “We were freaked out,” Desiree Phillips recalled, and they raced to the Backus emergency room.

“They ended up Life-Starring him to Hartford,” she said, with Desiree flying with her boy in the emergency helicopter while Darrell drove their car to the medical center. “We stayed with him that whole week,” she said.

Thankfully, Dr. Nicholas Bennett, who is an infectious disease specialist at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, figured out Liam could actually have the Powassan virus after Phillips told him she had removed a tick from Liam’s knee a few weeks earlier.

“We started to get some clues when we looked at his spinal fluid and at the MRI scan of his brain that this was a very unusual encephalitis that didn’t really fit with the more typical causes that we’re used to seeing,” Bennett said.

“It’s been an emotional rollercoaster,” Desiree Phillips said. “When he was in the hospital both me and my husband thought we were going to lose him.”

After months of physical therapy, Liam still has some weakness on his right side that may never fully resolve, but his mother is quite pleased with his progress.

“Actually, he’s a lot better than a lot of doctors thought he would be. He’s getting around perfectly well now … it won’t be long before he’s walking,” Phillips told the Hartford Courant.

Liam still has minor scarring on his brain, but his doctors don’t expect the lesions to affect him in the long run.

“Liam’s advantage is his age,” Bennett said. In young children, “the brain can reprogram the functions of neurons,” he explained, which is likely why Liam is regaining the motor skills that were affected by the virus.

What IS Powassan virus?

Powassan disease is one of the 15 identified tick-borne illnesses in the United States.

Cases of POW virus disease in the US have been reported primarily from northeastern states and the Great Lakes region. These cases occur primarily in the late spring, early summer and mid-fall when ticks are most active.

The virus is much more aggressive than Lyme disease and can infect someone in minutes.

The disease is not transmitted directly from person to person.

It is known to be transmitted by bites from two kinds of ticks: The blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis), which often bites humans and is the same tick that transmits Lyme disease, and the groundhog tick (Ixodes cookei), which rarely bites humans.

Many people who become infected with POW virus do not develop symptoms. The incubation period (time from the tick bite to onset of illness) ranges from one week to one month.

The virus can infect the central nervous system and cause encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) and meningitis (inflammation of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord).

Symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Confusion
  • Loss of coordination
  • Speech difficulties
  • Seizures

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately half of survivors have permanent neurological symptoms, such as recurrent headaches, muscle wasting, and memory problems.

Approximately 10% of POW virus encephalitis cases are fatal.

There aren’t any specific treatments for the infection. People with severe illness often need to be hospitalized. Treatment may include respiratory support, intravenous fluids, and medications to reduce swelling in the brain.

The diagnosis of Powassan virus is based on:

  • History of exposure to blacklegged ticks or tick habitat
  • Physical exam
  • Laboratory tests of blood and/or spinal fluid will need to be performed to confirm the diagnosis (these tests detect antibodies that the immune system makes against the viral infection)

The best way to prevent POW virus disease is by protecting yourself from tick bites. The following tips are from the CDC:

  • Avoid contact with ticks by avoiding wooded and bushy areas with high grass.
  • Apply insect repellents to bare skin, according to label instructions.
  • Repellents containing DEET can be applied to exposed skin, but only last a few hours.
  • Clothing and gear can be treated with permethrin, which remains protective through several washings.
  • Find and remove ticks immediately before they have a chance to bite and attach.
  • Bathe or shower (preferably within 2 hours after being outdoors) to wash off and find ticks on your body.
  • Conduct a full-body tick check. Parents should thoroughly check children, especially in their hair.
  • Also examine clothing, gear and pets.

Experts are warning that due to a warmer winter, ticks didn’t die off, and many regions will see more ticks than ever this spring. If you live in a high-risk area, be sure to check your family and pets regularly, and contact your healthcare provider should any bites occur. Saving the tick after removal will help with identification should any rashes or other symptoms appear.

H/t reader squodgy.

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