A New York Man Was Killed By A Rare Brain-Infecting Disease Spread By Ticks

The female deer tick (Ixodes scapularis), seen here laying eggs, can spread several diseases, including the Powassan virus. (Photo: Sue Partridge, CDC)

The most dangerous bug in the United States helped kill a New York resident, state health officials reported Friday. The man is believed to have died from a viral disease spread by ticks called Powassan fever. Though cases of Powassan remain rare, it’s one of many tickborne diseases that are becoming more common in the region.

According to the Ulster County Department of Health, the local resident had succumbed to the disease earlier this week. His death also marks the first reported case of Powassan in the state this year. The state says it sees anywhere from zero to six cases annually.

“It is imperative that all residents take every precaution necessary against tick-borne illnesses, especially during outdoor activities. Residents should vigilantly check themselves and their pets for ticks and tick bites,” said Carol Smith, Ulster County Commissioner of Health and Mental Health, in a statement Friday.

The ball-shaped Powassan virus is related to other viruses transmitted by six and eight-legged critters, like Zika, dengue and yellow fever. It’s spread by the bloodsucking bite of three Ixodes species of tick in the U.S. — the black-legged or deer tick, the squirrel tick, and the groundhog tick. These ticks catch the virus from infected rodents. But of the three species, only the deer tick, which also spreads Lyme disease, regularly bites people. Like the deer tick, cases of Powassan are typically limited to the eastern half of the U.S..

People infected with Powassan often don’t show any symptoms. But when people do get sick, they usually suffer from fever, headache, vomiting and general muscle weakness. An unlucky few can also develop a severe neurological infection. Of these more serious infections, roughly 10 per cent of people die, while half are left with lingering neurological problems. There is no current specific treatment or vaccine for Powassan.

In the case of the Ulster man, health officials reported that he had underlying medical conditions, which might have contributed to his death.

These deadlier neurological infections of Powassan are rare. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, there were only 21 such cases reported in the U.S. in 2018. And in New York, there were 19 cases reported in the last decade up to 2018.

More than anything, though, this latest case is a particularly grim reminder that ticks and insects are making people sicker and sicker (thanks in part to climate change). Powassan is low on the totem pole, but reported cases of illness caused by ticks, mosquitoes, and flea bites more than tripled from 2004 to 2016 and have continued to increase, according to America's CDC. Ticks are the largest culprit, with Lyme disease being the most common illness, but we’re continually discovering new tickborne diseases and conditions.

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