Powassan virus found in Massachusetts ticks

Powassan virus found in Massachusetts ticks
Updated: Jun. 10, 2022 at 5:00 PM EDT
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AMHERST, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - A western Massachusetts tick testing company has found several ticks have tested positive for the Powassan virus, not long after a Connecticut woman in her 90s died of the tick-borne virus.

Scientists at Tick Report in Amherst are busy testing around 1,000 ticks a week, taking a close look under the microscope, and extracting DNA.

“June is going to be the worst month of the year for deer ticks, really the riskiest tick bite that you can get,” said Paul Killinger, education director at Tick Report.

Deer ticks are the primary carrier of Lyme bacteria and the much rarer Powassan virus.

“This year has been a little bit funny for Powassan, where normally, we see two or three per year. At this point, we’ve only tested half of the ticks we normally do and we’ve already seen three positive results,” Killinger added.

Killinger said with the small sample size and it being so early in the year, this might not mean a whole lot, but with the recent deadly case of Powassan virus in Connecticut, the lab is keeping a close eye on it.

“It seems like the worst outcomes to come with people who are already at-risk, either with immune conditions or just because of age,” Killinger explained.

Killinger told Western Mass News that the 90-year-old woman’s age may have been a factor. Many people exposed to Powassan virus never feel sick, while others become severely ill with an in infection of the brain, encephalitis, or meningitis.

“A lot of actually similarities to the symptoms of a concussion, that’s kind of the cheat way that i like to think of it,” Killinger said.

Symptoms can develop between a week and a month after a bite and include fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, speech difficulties, and seizures.

Ten percent of those with a severe form of the disease will die and there is no known vaccine or treatment.

Thankfully, it is rare, but not unheard of in the Bay State. In the past decade, there were 100 cases of Powassan in the U.S. and 16 of those were in Massachusetts.

The longer a tick feeds, the riskier it is in transmitting a disease.

“When we see ticks that have fed for three or more days, there’s at least a 50 percent chance that it came from the hair of a child under the age of 12,” Killinger noted.

Killinger said to check your kid’s hair daily, use DEET on the skin, and spray your clothing and shoes with the insecticide permethrin.

“…And that’s something that only goes on clothing, but the nice thing about that is you can maybe do it once a month and you can just walk out the door,” Killinger explained.

Killinger said the spray is safe for pets as long as you let it dry overnight.