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POW, Powassan Virus Disease

Written & Published by Diet Bites

What is Powassan Virus Disease? [POW]

Powassan (POW) Virus Disease is rare, yet can be a very serious disease. The carrier is an infected tick which spreads the virus via human contact.

Approximately half of the survivors of Powassan Virus Disease exhibit permanent neurological symptoms, such as recurrent headaches, muscle wasting and memory problems. 

* Approximately 10% of POW Virus encephalitis cases are fatal. 

The cause for alarm is that the POW Virus Disease is starting to show an increase in the number of cases which are reported annually in the United States.

* About 50 cases of POW Virus Disease have been reported over the last decade.

It is in a group of anthropod-borne viruses [arboviruses] which can cause all sorts of health issues, including encephalitis, a serious life-threatening inflammation of the brain.

There is a cycle maintained between ticks and small-sized rodents for the POW Virus. There are three main enzootic cycles which occur:

1. Ixodes cookei and woodchucks which rarely bite humans.

2. Ixodes marxi and squirrels - which also rarely bite humans.

3. Ixodes scapularis and white-footed mice which often bite humans are the primary vector of Lyme Disease.  

The types of POW Virus in the US are '1 POW VIRUS'. It is associated with Ixodes cookei or Ixodes marxiticks.

The other lineage '2 POW VIRUS' is often referred to as Deer Tick Virus. It is associated with  Ixodes scapularisticks.

Both the 1 & 2 POW Virus are linked to human disease.

How Powassan Virus Disease Infects People

POW is transmitted when a human is bitten by an infected tick. It cannot be transmitted directly from person-to-person and it is not an airborne virus.

The human body doesn't develop enough concentrations of POW Virus in the bloodstream to infect feeding ticks, therefore we-humans are the dead-end hosts of the POW Virus.

Areas Where Concentrated Cases of Powassan Virus Disease Has Occurred in the United States

Concentration of reported cases of POW have occurred in the Northeastern and Great Lakes regions of the US.

Infections have also been reported in Russia and Canada. In the United States, during 2003 - 2006 there was 1 case reported each year. In 2007, there were 7 reported cases. In 2008, only 2 cases were reported.

In 2009, there were 6 cases and in 2010, 8 reported cases of POW Virus.

In 2011, 12 cases were reported; in 2012 - that decreases to 7 cases and in 2013, the reported cases increased again to 12.

The following is a breakdown of reported cases by states:

Minnesota: 20 cases
Wisconsin: 13 cases
New York, 17 cases
Maine: 1 case
New Hampshire: 1 case
New Jersey: 1 case
Virginia: 1 case 

Highest Risk Seasons of the Year for Contracting POW Virus

The peak season occurs during late spring, early summer and mid-fall.

This is the time when ticks are most active, so the risks are greater as more ticks are about.

Areas which pose the highest risk include wooded areas as well as areas with tall grass or thick brush.

When hiking or performing any outdoor activity during the peak season for ticks, you should always do a full body check after your outing.

They are very easy to miss and may go unnoticed for days. Be sure to check your scalp as well as moist areas of the body. Don't forget to check your back - from head to heels.

Who is at Risk for Powassan Virus Disease Infection?

Everyone who has been bitten by an infected tick is at risk for POW Virus. The individuals who are at highest risk are those who live, work or play in high risk areas for ticks - such as the bushy, wooded or tall grass areas.

Incubation Period for Illness From Powassan Virus Disease, Including Symptoms

Incubation period for POW is one week to one month - so the window between the bite and becoming ill is very wide.

Symptoms for Powassan Virus Disease include but are not limited to:

- No physical or mental symptoms may be evident.

- Encephalitis [inflammation of the brain]. Unfortunately, 10% of POW Virus encephalitis cases are fatal. 

- Meningitis [inflammation of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord].Everyone who has been bitten by an infected tick.

The individuals who are at highest risk are those who live, work or play in high risk areas for ticks - such as the bushy, wooded or tall grass areas.

- Symptoms can include headache, weakness, confusion, loss of coordination, speaking difficulties, fever, vomiting and seizures.

Diagnosis of Powassan Virus Disease

Laboratory tests on spinal fluid and blood will be performed and the doctor will also review the patient's signs and symptoms amid the visit. The laboratory tests can detect antibodies produced by the immune system of the body that are made against the viral infection.

Treatment for Powassan Virus Disease

Unfortunately, at this time we do not have a cure for POW - or a medicine to treat POW.

Support may include hospitalization, respiratory support, medications to reduce swelling in the brain, and fluids may be given intravenously.

There is no vaccine against the POW Virus.

How to Reduce Your Risk for Powassan Virus Disease

Protect your body against tick bites. Although POW is very frightening, there are other harmful diseases associated with tick bites - such as Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Deer Tick Fever.

Therefore, use your common sense when you're outdoors - whether at work or play.

Repellents containing DEET which are applied directly to the skin can deter insects - including ticks, but keep in mind that they only last a few hours.

Clothing and gear [excluding certain items such as cameras, lenses, etc. which can be harmed by chemical applications] can be treated with permethrin.

Even after washing, the permethrin remains on the clothing and can add a layer of protection. Once you return indoors, plan to bathe or shower within two hours.

If you do find a tick - remove it immediately, before they attach. Once they attach, they have already achieved 'the bite'.

Don't forget to do a tick-check on your pets after you check out yourself.

Also look for ticks that may have found their way to your clothing or other gear that you've taken outdoors with you - such as camping equipment, bedrolls and pillows.


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