First Death From Powassan Virus Infection in the US

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According to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a person in the US has died from the rare Powassan virus, marking the first fatal case in the country this year. The person was a Sagadohoc County resident who developed neurologic symptoms after exposure to the tick-borne illness and died in a hospital, health officials said. They did not release a name or other identifying information. The death comes after a spike in tick-borne diseases, including Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, and babesiosis, across the state this spring and summer.

Powassan — or POWV — is spread to humans by the bite of an infected black-legged tick, deer tick, groundhog tick, or squirrel tick. Ticks are external parasites that feed on mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians. While many people infected with Powassan never develop symptoms, those who do experience them can get extremely sick. The illness can cause encephalitis or meningitis, which is very serious and often leads to death. It can also cause other symptoms, such as headache, vomiting, and weakness.

The CDC says it’s essential for people to know about the deadly virus and to prevent tick-borne diseases. However, it adds that the symptoms of the most severe illness — encephalitis — can mimic those of other ailments, such as the flu or the common cold. That means some people may not seek medical care right away.

No vaccine for Powassan or treatment can be used against the disease. However, a person infected with the illness can be treated in the hospital for complications, including breathing support, intravenous fluids, and medicines to decrease brain swelling. About 50% of those who become ill with the most severe type of the disease will experience lasting neurological issues, such as memory challenges or muscle weakness.

Health officials advise people in tick-endemic areas to avoid tick bites and wear long pants and sleeves outdoors. In addition, they should use insect repellent and tuck their clothing into their shoes or boots. People should also check themselves for ticks frequently and remove them immediately if they find one.

A person can only be diagnosed with Powassan by a health care provider who suspects it based on the patient’s symptoms and past tick exposure, as well as an examination. A doctor can obtain a sample of the patient’s cerebrospinal fluid (CSF, the liquid surrounding the brain and spinal cord) to test for the infection with a needle tap or lumbar puncture. The test can be challenging because it involves inserting a needle into the lower back or spine. In addition, it can be painful and requires sedation. If the CSF test is positive, a healthcare provider can treat the patient with antibiotics to lessen brain swelling and other medications that help manage the illness. This week in science: Powassan virus kills first victim, global coffee supply is affected by high temperatures, and space billionaires make more money.

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