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Rare Tick-Borne Disease Kills Maine Man

Hikers heading into tick territory on the East Coast are most at risk of the uncommon Powassan virus.

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A rare tick-borne virus killed a Maine resident, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Wednesday. 

The man, whose name has not been released, checked himself into a Waldo County hospital after experiencing a series of unexplainable neurological symptoms. After his death, doctors confirmed that the Powassan virus, which he likely contracted in-state, was the cause.

While the CDC indicates that many people who are infected with the virus may not even show symptoms, others are not so fortunate.  Symptoms for the Powassan virus typically appear within a month of being bitten and may include confusion, headaches, loss of coordination, memory loss, meningitis, and encephalitis, an infection of the brain. 

Since 2011, the Powassan Virus has accounted for just an average of 18 cases each year. But those numbers appear to be on the rise: Between 2015 and 2020, the United States saw an average of 28 reported cases of the Powassan Virus, which is a 64% increase. 

Cases were predominantly reported from the northeast, with some reaching as far west as North Dakota. Of those 178 cases, 22 (12%) resulted in death. 

“Ticks are active and looking for a host to bite right now,” Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, saidin a written statement. “I urge Maine people and visitors to take steps that prevent tick bites.” 

The Powassan Virus is most commonly spread by the deer tick and the woodchuck tick – both of which are prevalent across the East Coast but can be found in most states. There is currently no specific treatment or vaccine available for the virus. The CDC suggests that limiting contact with ticks is the best strategy to reduce the chances of encountering the Powassan Virus. 

Along with the Powassan virus, hikers venturing into areas where ticks are common face the risk of contracting a host of other potentially life-altering diseases like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Many of the symptoms of these diseases can overlap, making the diagnosis and treatment of them difficult. 

Tick bites most frequently occur outdoors between the spring and fall. Those who work or recreate in grassy or wooded areas are at the highest risk of illness due to the level of potential exposure. 

To avoid being bitten, the CDC recommends taking steps like becoming educated on where ticks may live, treating clothing and gear with permethrin, and using appropriate insect repellents. Conducting regular tick checks on yourself and your pets may also help to reduce tick bites.

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