A new tick-borne threat


To the Editor:

I am writing to inform the Vineyard community that deer tick–borne Powassan virus types 1 & 2 exists on our Island, and certainly in Chilmark. In early January, despite my being tick-checked the night before, the next morning I found a slightly embedded tick that had secured a small blood meal — yes, in less than 12 hours. The following day I sent the Ix. scapularis tick to the department of medical zoology at UMass Amherst to be tested. I had it checked for all known tick-borne illnesses, and the POW 1 & 2 results were positive. Surprisingly, the head of the department of microbiology sent me a follow-up email to the earlier results to make certain I understood the serious implications of the findings, and assured me that techs reran both POW tests for verification.

It is likely that Island physicians and the public are not aware of the wider implications of my unfortunate discovery, and equally likely that many have not heard of the viruses. Powassan virus has the potential to become a far more serious illness and epidemic across North America and the Northeast than Lyme disease, according to many sources, including the Yale School of Public Health. Symptoms of infection by the virus can include encephalitis and meningitis; 10 percent of serious cases of the infection are fatal, with permanent brain damage highly likely in survivors. Like all viruses, it can be contracted much more easily than a bacterial infection. It is believed that once a POW-infected tick has attached to the skin, the virus can infect the new host within minutes, as opposed to the questionable 24 to 36 hours of blood contact necessary for a Lyme infection (some research indicates much less time is necessary).

The incubation period for POW disease is believed to be from one to four weeks. (It’s been six weeks since my exposure, and I’m still asymptomatic.) Incidentally, what’s equally concerning from the research I have done is that it appears this is a new ecology for the POW virus, having until recently only been found in the woodchuck tick, Ix. cookei, which is not found on the Island.

Please do your homework and educate yourself on the warning signs of this potentially very dangerous infection.

Karl Nelson