Maine CDC warns of Powassan virus, winter-ready ticks

In a public health update today, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports it’s investigating a likely case of Powassan encephalitis, yet another infection spread through the bite of an infected deer tick. If confirmed through further testing, it would mark the first documented case of the rare but serious Powassan virus in Maine in about a decade.

A woman from the Mid-Coast area was hospitalized with a suspected case of the virus in early December, according to the update. She hadn’t traveled recently, which indicates she contracted the virus locally. Early testing came up positive for Powassan and further tests to confirm the results are pending.

Symptoms can include fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, seizures, and memory loss, according to the update. Longer term, the virus can lead to neurological problems. “There is no specific treatment, but people with severe Powassan illness often require hospitalization,” the update reads.

This virus was first recognized in the town of Powassan, Ontario in 1958.

The public health agency urged health care providers to be on the lookout for a number of tick-borne diseases, which remain on the rise this year, even continuing into the cold winter months. In multiple cases, symptoms have started as late as December, the update said.

Frigid temperatures alone aren’t enough to kill the resilient eight-legged deer tick. Adult deer ticks can remain active from fall through spring as long as temperatures remain above freezing. Even when the mercury dips below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, they remain alive, just less active, according to the update.

The update included these latest stats on a few other tick-borne diseases in Maine, as of Dec. 16:

Anaplasmosis: Maine CDC recorded 91 confirmed and probable cases, a jump from 52  in 2012. Cases were reported in 11 counties, with Knox County reporting the highest number (25), followed by Cumberland (22) and York (17). Anaplasmosis is a bacterial infection that can lead to severe flu-like symptoms, such as body aches, fever and headache.

Babesiosis: 36 confirmed and probable cases, up from 10 cases in 2012. Cases were reported in six counties (Cumberland, Kennebec, Knox, Lincoln, Penobscot and York). York reported the highest number (17), followed by Cumberland (9) and Knox (7). Less common but potentially serious, babesiosis is a tick-borne disease in which microscopic parasites infect red blood cells. It can especially sicken those with weak immune systems and people who have had their spleen removed.

Lyme: Maine has 1,285 confirmed and probable cases of Lyme disease, up from 1,111 in 2012. In a troubling development, three people in the Northeast who died over the last year suffered from undetected heart inflammation caused by Lyme, according to a new federal study. The deaths, in Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut, suggest the disease is fatal more often than previously understood, though “Lyme carditis” occurs in less than one percent of cases reported to the U.S. CDC.

Maine CDC urged Mainers to wear protective clothing, use an EPA-approved insect repellent, and use caution in tick-infested areas.

“Although a tick must be attached for at least 24 hours to transmit Lyme disease, the attachment time is not well defined for the other diseases and may be less,” the update concluded.

Jackie Farwell

About Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and finding new ways to help you stay well. I live in Gorham with my husband Nick and our hound dog Riley.