Public health officials report dangerous new tick borne illness has made its way to Minnesota

By Daniel E. McGonigle

General Manager

The Caledonia Argus

As the weather warms up and people are venturing out into the wooded areas to enjoy all that Houston County and southeast Minnesota has to offer, a word of warning from public health officials.

Turkey hunters, morel mushroom hunters, children playing in a park, are all reminded to do what you can to protect yourself from ticks.

A new tick-born illness has been reported and is becoming more and more prevalent in southeast Minnesota and Houston County.

Powassan is named after a town in Ontario, Canada, where the virus was discovered in 1958. Now it’s here in the U.S. The country records about seven cases each year on the East Coast and in the Upper Midwest.

What makes Powassan so dangerous is that it attacks the brain, making it swell up.

In about 10 percent of cases, Powassan is deadly. Patients who do recover, have about a 50 percent chance of permanent neurological damage.

In Minnesota, the months of April-July and September-October are the greatest risk for being bitten by a black-legged tick. Risk peaks in June every year. Blacklegged ticks are small; adults are about the size of a sesame seed and nymphs (young ticks) are about the size of a poppy seed. Due to their small size, a person may not know they have been bitten by a tick.

Powassan

Lyme disease isn’t the only tick-borne illness that can come from a walk in the woods.

Health experts are warning that the pathogen, Powassan virus, can cause dangerous inflammation in the brain and may be transmitted to humans much faster than Lyme. In some cases, transmission can take place in just 15 minutes.

The virus was first recognized in deer ticks, the type that bite humans and also carry Lyme disease, in the mid-1990s.

Since then, about 75 cases have been reported to the CDC over the last 10 years, and most have been in the northeast and the Great Lakes region.

Protect yourself just like lymes

If you are bitten by a tick, rushing to the doctor right away won’t do you much good, experts say.

Tests for these viruses aren’t pleasant—they involve blood and spinal-fluid drawings—and may not show signs of infection for several days or weeks.

The CDC says that people should protect themselves from Powassan virus the same way they do other tick-borne illnesses: by wearing insect repellent when spending time in areas where ticks are present, inspecting clothing and skin afterward and bathing or showering upon returning home. If pets have been outdoors, make sure they’re inspected regularly as well.

Many people infected with Powassan virus may have no symptoms or only mild symptoms. Symptoms of Powassan virus usually appear within 1-4 weeks of a tick bite. Signs and symptoms may include:

• Fever.

• Headache.

• Vomiting.

• Weakness.

• Seizures.

• Encephalitis (swelling of the brain).

• Meningitis (swelling of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord).

There is no specific medicine to cure or treat Powassan virus disease. Patients with severe illness may need supportive care such as hospitalization and respiratory support.

CDC recommendations

Check for ticks at least once a day after spending time in areas where ticks live:

• Inspect your entire body closely for ticks, especially hard-to-see areas such as the groin and armpits.

• Remove ticks as soon as you find one.

• Use tweezers and grasp the tick close to its mouth and pull the tick outward slowly and gently. Clean the area with soap and water.

• Examine your gear and pets for ticks too.

• Manage areas where ticks live:

• Keep lawns and trails mowed short.

• Remove leaves and brush.

• Create a landscape barrier of wood chips or rocks between mowed lawns and woods.