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4 CT residents test positive for rare Powassan virus, which comes from tick bites

At the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, Dr. Goudarz Molaei and his team study and research ticks brought in from the public. Pictured on the left is a female adult deer tick in his lab. The tick on the right is a dog tick.
Tony Spinelli
/
Connecticut Public
At the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, Dr. Goudarz Molaei and his team study and research ticks brought in from the public. Pictured on the left is a female adult deer tick in his lab. The tick on the right is a dog tick.

Four Connecticut residents have tested positive for the rare Powassan virus, marking the first cases of the year, state officials said.

All four residents were hospitalized and treated; they have been released from the hospital and are recovering, the Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH) said. Each person had reported being bitten by a tick.

Powassan virus can cause severe disease, including encephalitis, or brain infection, and meningitis, or infection of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord, federal health officials said.

Last year, officials reported six cases of the virus in Connecticut; two of the infections were fatal.

Between 2016 and 2022, officials reported 19 cases of the virus in the state.

This year’s cases include two men, both at least 60 years old who live in Middlesex County and Litchfield County, who became ill in early July. Two women, both at least 50 years old who live in Windham County and Litchfield County, fell ill in late July.

All four residents were hospitalized with a central nervous system disease, officials said.

Laboratory tests performed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Laboratory in Fort Collins, Colorado, confirmed the presence of antibodies to the virus in all patients.

“The identification of four Connecticut residents with Powassan virus-associated illness emphasizes the importance of taking actions to protect yourself from tick bites from now through the late fall,” DPH Commissioner Dr. Manisha Juthani said in a statement.

Officials have been getting more reports and samples of ticks for testing this year compared to last year, according to Dr. Goudarz Molaei, the director of the Connecticut Tick and Tick-borne Pathogen Surveillance Program at the Agricultural Experiment Station,

Molaei said there’s a “persistent and expanding threat posed” by the various ticks and that these developments highlight the “increasing public health challenges associated with ticks and tick-borne diseases.”

According to DPH, Powassan virus is spread to people through the bite of an infected blacklegged tick or deer tick. It takes between one week and one month after the bite of an infected tick to develop symptoms of the virus. The virus can be transmitted in as little as 15 minutes after the tick first attaches. Powassan virus-associated illness is typically reported from early spring until late fall when ticks have been most active.

While most people infected likely experience no symptoms or a mild flu-like illness, some people will develop severe illness affecting the central nervous system, according to state public health officials. About one out of 10 cases of severe illness are fatal and approximately half of people infected experience long-term health problems.

Severe cases may begin with fever, vomiting, headache, or weakness and rapidly progress to confusion, loss of coordination, difficulty speaking, or seizures, officials said.

There is no vaccine nor a specific treatment for POWV associated illness. Severe illness is treated by supportive therapy which may include hospitalization, respiratory support, and hydration.

Tips to avoid tick bites

The Connecticut Department of Public Health provides these tips:

  • Avoid areas where ticks are likely to be, such as in grassy, brushy, or wooded areas. Ticks are active from spring to fall and may also be active on warmer days during winter.
  • Consider the use of CDC-recommended mosquito/tick repellents, containing DEET, picaridin, oil of lemon eucalyptus, IR3535, or 2-undecanone, and apply according to directions, when outdoors. However, repellents containing >30% DEET have been reported to be the most effective.
  • Check yourself, your children, and your pets for ticks immediately after coming indoors. Showering within two hours of coming indoors may be effective in reducing the risk of tick-borne disease.
  • Examine clothing and gear carefully after coming indoors. Tumble-dry clothing in a dryer on high heat for at least 10 minutes to kill ticks that were carried inside.
  • Talk to your veterinarian about the best tick prevention products for your dog.
  • Consider treating items such as boots, clothing, and hiking or camping gear with products containing 0.5% permethrin.

Learn more about Powassan virus here.

Matthew Long-Middleton has helped shape Connecticut Public's broadcast and digital reporting, producing and writing since the fall of 2022.