Planning a weekend trip upstate or a summer walk in the park? Be sure to add long pants and insect repellent to your checklist. Tick populations are on the rise in the Tri-state area, bringing with them the threat of neurologically debilitating diseases.
In addition to Lyme Disease — the most common tick-borne illness, causing fever, rash, arthritis and sometimes paralysis — outdoorsy New Yorkers should be on the lookout for Powassan Virus, a rare but severe tick-borne vector known to pose risks of encephalitis (infection of the brain) and meningitis (infection of the spinal cord).
According to the CDC, while one in 10 people who contract the virus will die, half of those who survive infection face long-term health issues, such as recurring headaches, loss of muscle mass and strength, and memory problems.
Dr. Scott Weisenberg MD, Clinical Associate Professor, Department of Medicine and Director of Infectious Disease Fellowship Program at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine spoke to W42ST about the current risks of the warm-weather tick season.
“Both Lyme Disease and Powassan Virus are found primarily in the Ixodes scapularis — also known as the Deer Tick and Blacklegged Tick,” said Dr Weisenberg. “The virus is going to be present primarily where the tick is — in this case, the Northeast and Upper Midwest,” he added.
While Dr Weisenberg hasn’t seen any reports of Powassan Virus this year in New York State, there have been cases in the past, and in early May, a Connecticut man bitten by a tick was diagnosed with the state’s first case of the year.
“The ticks that cause these diseases seem to be expanding, and you see that the numbers there, other than in 2020, seem to be more prevalent in areas than they were 50 years ago. There’s concern that tick-borne infections — both Powassan virus, but also other tick-borne infections, seem to be increasing at risk for a number of different reasons,” said Dr Weisenberg.
He stressed that while Powassan Virus is rarer, likely due to the fact that those diagnosed are usually patients experiencing severe symptoms, the risk of contracting Lyme Disease through a tick bite is far more common.
“The people who are recognized as getting Powassan Virus and are diagnosed are going to be people who have encephalitis. Just about everybody who is diagnosed with Powassan Virus is going to have those kinds of symptoms, and that’s what’s going to prompt their doctors to start looking for this virus, typically with a blood test and spinal fluid test,” said Dr Weisenberg.
“There are probably more people who get infected and we don’t recognize it in cases where patients self-resolve, but it’s not yet really understood,” he added.
Either way, Dr Weisenberg noted, it’s best to consider all ticks a risk, as they often carry multiple viruses. “Certain ticks can contain more than one pathogen that’s infectious to people. The bacteria that causes Lyme Disease could be inside of a tick, but also the parasite that causes babesiosis, the bacteria that causes anaplasmosis, can all be in the same tick. These other diseases are far more common than encephalitis,” he said. “Someone is far more likely to develop Lyme Disease if they have an exposure to this particular type of tick, than they are to get Powassan Virus,” he added.
Dr Weisenberg recommends the CDC’s well-maintained Tick-borne Diseases resource page, which includes mapped statistics on the prevalence of different tick-borne illnesses by region, as well as an excellent Tick ID visual guide to spotting and identifying the perilous pests.
“The most important thing for the public to know is that they should take precautions before they go outside. Try to limit exposure to ticks and also mosquitoes as well — summertime viruses like West Nile are becoming far more common than Powassan Virus. And they can do that by using EPA-approved insect repellents,” said Dr Weisenberg. Information about many of those repellents can be found on the CDC website.
In addition to wearing insect repellent and tick repellent clothing, doctors recommend a full body tick check using a mirror. Check your scalp, ears, armpits, belly button and between the legs, and stay vigilant for any concerning symptoms after spending time outside.
Said Dr Weisenberg: “If you have unexplained fevers in the summer, it’s always important to contact your healthcare provider to see if a tick-borne infection might be a cause.”