Experts urge consumers to watch out for Powassan virus

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Growing tick populations put consumers in danger of this and other tick-borne diseases

Warmer weather finally appears to be here to stay in many areas of the country, and consumers will likely take advantage by spending more time outside. But trekking around in nature comes with dangers of its own.

In particular, experts say that the past two warm winters will mean an increased tick population going forward, which means a surge in tick-borne infections and diseases. While most consumers think of Lyme’s disease when the subject is brought up, researchers say that one condition to look out for is Powassan virus, which can cause long-term neurological problems, severe illness, and even death.

"About 15% of patients who are infected and have symptoms are not going [to] survive. Of the survivors, at least 50% will have long-term neurological damage that is not going to resolve," said Dr. Jennifer Lyons, chief of the Division of Neurological Infections and Inflammatory Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, in a CNN report.

Escalating symptoms

Historically, Powassan hasn’t been a huge problem in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says only 75 cases have been reported in the last 10 years. However, those who are infected and develop symptoms are at extreme risk of serious medical conditions.

Lyons explains that the initial symptoms are very much like the flu, with consumers experiencing muscle aches, pains, fever, and headache. But in just a couple of days, things may escalate and become much more serious.

"You start to develop difficulties with maintaining your consciousness and your cognition. . . You may develop seizures. You may develop inability to breathe on your own," said Lyons.

Unfortunately, there are no vaccines or treatments currently available for Powassan, but Lyons points out that there are some experimental treatments that can be administered if a patient comes in when symptoms are still in their early stages. However, she admits that “we have no idea if any of that works.”

Focus on prevention

As such, consumers who want to avoid infection must concentrate their efforts on not being bitten by ticks in the first place. Researchers have identified three species of ticks that can carry the virus – lxodes cookie, lxodes marxi, and lxodes scapularis. The last is more commonly known as a deer tick, which consumers may recognize as a major carrier of Lyme’s disease.

Experts say the best way of avoiding tick bites is to not enter high brushy areas when outside and to wear long sleeves and pants whenever possible. Consumers should also be sure to buy and use insect repellent and frequently conduct tick checks after being outside.

“The best thing people can do if they’re worried about Powassan or any other tick-borne virus is to prevent against all tick bites. . . Essentially, you don’t need to worry about Powassan if you don’t get bit by a tick,” said Dr. Daniel Pastula of the University of Colorado Denver and the Colorado School of Public Health.

To learn more about Powassan and other tick-borne viruses, consumers can visit the CDC’s site here.

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