2017-05-25 / Front Page

Officials warn of new tick virus

BY TIM RIEL

Lyme disease is the reason most Jamestowners scour their bodies when they return from the woods, but it’s another virus borne from deer ticks that’s making headlines.

Alarming reports from across the Northeast and Midwest indicate an explosion in the tick population this season, along with the potential influx of the Powassan virus into Rhode Island. While the disease has not been discovered here yet, there have been nine cases since 2013 in Massachusetts. All the victims were hospitalized and two died.

Tom Mather, a University of Rhode Island professor and one of the nation’s foremost experts on ticks, is unsure whether this season will be worse than past summers.

“It’s hard to know,” he said. “But I’m sure people in Jamestown think every year is a bad year for ticks.”

The Powassan virus is transmitted to humans by infected ticks. There have been 75 cases reported in the United States since 2005, mostly in the Great Lakes region and New York. However, the virus is inching toward New England. It has stricken twice in Maine, once in New Hampshire and an infant in Connecticut was diagnosed six months ago.

“We haven’t detected it in our ticks yet,” Mather said, “but we haven’t really looked.”

Mather and his team will begin testing for Powassan this summer.

The virus, he said, was first identified in the 1950s in groundhog ticks, which don’t typically bite humans. Throughout the years, however, a different strain of Powassan has emerged.

“The virus has changed its genes a little bit and has adapted to survive in blacklegged ticks,” Mather said. “This is the strain that has become everybody’s fear.”

The good news, however, is the disease is “extremely rare,” Mather said. About one-fifth of all blacklegged ticks, also called deer ticks, in the nymph stage are infected with Lyme, but only 1 percent of ticks carry Powassan. Regardless of that low risk, the virus has appeared on the state’s radar.

According to a May 17 press release, Rhode Island health officials indicated they are “concerned about Powassan, a new tick-borne disease to southern New England.” Symptoms, they said, range from fevers to vomiting to seizures. Nearly half of the survivors exhibit permanent neurological problems, including recurrent headaches and memory problems. The virus, which is related to West Nile, infects the central nervous system, potentially causing inflammation of the brain and meningitis. About one in 10 cases are fatal and there are no medications to treat or prevent the infection.

Lyme disease, on the other hand, is treatable. However, its prevalence has health officials worried. Approximately 900 Rhode Islanders are infected with Lyme disease annually. In 2014, the Ocean State had the fourth highest rate in the nation.

Lyme disease is caused by bacteria that spread through the bite of an infected tick that has been attached for at least 36 hours. Symptoms of onset Lyme can include fever, a bull’s-eye rash, Bell’s palsy, severe headaches, neck stiffness, joint swelling heart palpitations and dizziness.

Although Lyme is much less fatal than Powassan, Mather said the steps to prevent the diseases are the same. The key is thoroughness.

“Even if you’ve been very diligent, it’s very hard to see a poppy seed,” he said.

According to Mather, wearing clothing and shoes with repellent is the easiest and most effective way to prevent tick bikes. He said to use repellents with permethrin, an invisible, odorless insecticide that appears on the World Health Organization’s list of essential medicines. Repellents containing DEET are not sufficient, he said, because that only deters ticks, while permethrin kills them on contact. The best way, however, is a combination of repellents with permethrin for clothing and ones with DEET on the skin.

“An ounce of prevention is absolutely worth a pound of cure,” said Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, state health director.

Another prevention tip is tucking pants legs into socks. That’s because ticks start low and crawl up — they do not jump, fly or drop from trees, Mather said.

Checking for ticks also is key after a day in the woods. Ticks can attach anywhere, Mather said, but particularly like the backs of knees, around waistbands and under armpits. They do not wash off in the shower. Because it takes time for ticks to transmit diseased pathogens, they should be removed immediately, Mather said. At his Tick Encounter Resource Center website, there are proper removal techniques.

“We encourage people to get outside and connect with nature,” said Janet Coit, director of the state Department of Environmental Management. “But equally important is doing so safely.”

Take precaution

As blacklegged ticks emerge in their dangerous nymph stage, the Jamestown Tick Task Force is combating their arrival by spraying shoes with permethrin, an insecticide that kills deer ticks on contact.

Residents can bring their shoes (two pairs maximum) to Jamestown Hardware between 10 a.m. and noon for the free treatment. According to Dr. Tom Mather, people wearing treated shoes are 74 times less likely to be bitten by a tick. That’s because ticks generally latch onto shoes and crawl up pants, he added.

“It’s the easier thing to do,” Mather said. “Why not do it?”

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