A US Man Was Killed by a Rare Brain-Infecting Disease Spread by Ticks

By Ed Cara on at

The most dangerous bug in the United States helped kill a man in the state of New York, state health officials reported Thursday. 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.

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 Thursday.

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 US—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 US.

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 percent 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 US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were only 21 such cases reported in America 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, especially in the US (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 have more than tripled from 2004 to 2016 and have continued to increase, according to the CDC. Ticks are the largest culprit, with Lyme disease being the most common illness, but we’re continually discovering new tickborne diseases and conditions.

Given that the season for ticks extends from late spring to autumn, anyone who regularly ventures to or is planning on visiting grassy, brushy or wooded areas in the US should do as much as they can to protect themselves from bites.

The CDC recommends treating your clothes and gear with repellents containing 0.5% permethrin (pre-treated clothes work too) when outside, while people should spray repellents containing DEET, picaridin, IR3535, Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus (OLE), para-menthane-diol (PMD), or 2-undecanone on themselves. Afterwards, people should check themselves, their pets, or their clothes for ticks, possibly while taking a shower, within two hours of coming inside.

Featured image: Sue Partridge (CDC)