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Deadly New Deer Tick Virus Emerges in New York

Blacklegged ticks can carry a host of diseases, and now a new virus is taking root in New York.

Blacklegged ticks can carry a host of diseases, and now a new virus is taking root in New York.

In many parts of the country blacklegged ticks, or deer ticks, have a fearsome reputation for spreading Lyme disease. Commonly transmitted to humans, tick-borne diseases are reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to be on the rise. Now scientists believe they have discovered a new threat from the blacklegged ticks called the Lineage II Powassan virus.

In a recently published paper in the journal Parasites and Vectors, researchers suggest that the Powassan virus is responsible for a number of human infections throughout the Hudson Valley in New York state. According to the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies, the virus can cause nervous system disruption, encephalitis, and meningitis in humans. There is a 10 to 15 percent fatality rate in documented cases and some survivors are left with permanent neurological damage.

“We’ve seen a rise in this rare but serious illness in parts of New York State that are hot spots for Lyme disease,” said Rick Ostfeld, one of the paper’s authors. “We suspected it was tied to an increase in blacklegged ticks carrying deer tick virus, particularly on the east side of the Hudson River.”

Ostfeld and his team surveyed more than 13,000 individual ticks from a variety of hosts over a period of five years. Along with deer, the blacklegged tick can also be found on small critters such as raccoons, foxes, birds, and even domestic animals. According to the CDC, ticks will often prefer different hosts at each stage of their life and risk of human infection is highest during the creature’s nymph stage. Ticks primarily find hosts by waiting in well-traveled areas with their first pair of legs outstretched. When a suitable host passes by the tick climbs aboard and attaches itself to the unwary victim.

The tick will begin feeding in as quickly as 10 minutes’ time. If the tick carries the illness, Lyme disease can be transmitted within a few hours or up to two days. Oftentimes, this gives victims a “grace period” to remove the tick and possibly avoid being infected. The American Lyme Disease Foundation advises that if a tick has become attached but not yet engorged with blood, it is likely that it has not yet transmitted Lyme disease. Unfortunately, the Powassan virus is not as patient. Unlike many of the common illnesses transmitted by ticks, the virus transmission can take as little as 15 minutes.

“There is no vaccine or specific antiviral therapy,” said Ostfield. “The best strategy remains prevention.”

While the Powassan virus is rare compared to Lyme disease, Ostfeld remains worried that the virus will spread beyond the state.

“The infection prevalence of about 1 percent to 6 percent among these ticks is low compared with Lyme disease, which often is found in 30 percent to 50 percent of ticks, but it’s still alarmingly high, giving you a one in 20 chance that the tick biting you might be transmitting a deadly virus,” Ostfeld told MedPage Today.

So far the Hudson River seems to provide a natural barrier preventing the virus from traveling west, but Ostfeld says historically deer ticks proved able to spread despite such obstacles.

“Therefore, we might expect Powassan to move across the Hudson into western New York and potentially elsewhere in the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions like the other tick-borne diseases,” Ostfeld said.

Research on the virus is ongoing. A different version of the Powassan virus was first identified in 1958 but relatively little is known about the virus until now.

Update: Other states in the region have also recorded cases of Powassan virus-related disease in recent years. According to the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), common symptoms involve fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, loss of coordination, speech difficulties, and memory loss. 

More information on identifying symptoms and possible risk of infection can be found on the MDH’s site here.

Visit the CDC’s website here for some useful tips on avoiding ticks.

Image courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture

Any views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of OutdoorHub. Comments on this article reflect the sole opinions of their writers.
  • Greengiant

    Interesting and informative article that everyone should read. Thanks for publishing it.

  • Emily

    …wouldn’t it be prudent to tell people the symptoms and what to do regarding treatment options for something that is so potentially threatening?

    • Daniel Xu

      Thank you Emily, I have updated the article and added a link to the Minnesota Department of Health’s site for more information.

  • whiteletter68

    So what in hell are we supposed to do to eradicate this damn tick? The number of insect initiated diseases has skyrocketed in the past ten years. Bring back the pesticides that kill them, and to hell with the tree huggers!

    • rex

      Get a terminator zapper.blood electrification will also kill this virus.

      Dr. kaali phd killed the aids virus in blood with weak electrical current

  • Bauer s

    Maybe ny should start spraying to kill these ticks. The amount of devastation they are causing to us is unbelievable. I know of many people with Lyme and it ruins their lives. If it were any other disease there would be money lef
    t and right being thrown at it for control.

  • rex

    Mms#1,mms#2(calcium hypochlorite capsule 73%swallowed w 8 oz water=hypochlorous acid which is a pro oxidant your own white blood cells make which quickly kills this tick virus .there is no resistance to hypochlorous acid called master mineral solution #2. )

    • coryn

      Is there a link you could send me to? to research your above claim? it would be appreciated thx coryn alclear2403@aol.com

  • Speedtrippn31

    Could tick infestations be more of an ecology problem than a pesticide issue? In my local area (central Pennsylvania) the number of ticks in the woods has skyrocketed. When I was young my siblings and I would play in the woods all day without a worry of a tick. In the last five – ten years if I go 400 meters into the woods I likely have a tick on me.
    In the same area and over the same amount time the coyote population has boomed. The number of coyotes killed during the annual Mosquito Creek Coyote Hunt can attest to that. Given that Coyotes (and some pesticides) can decimate wild bird populations, that would be natural predators for ticks, is there a correlation between the rise in coyotes, decline in bird populations, and rise in tick populations?

    • fishskicanoe

      It probably has more to do with the rise in deer numbers than anything else. Coyotes would, if anything, lessen the number of rodents that are a essential vector for these ticks. Insect eating birds are taking a beating from the disruption of habitat in the their winter homes in the Tropics and Sub-tropics. I’m not sure what effect their numbers would have on ticks anyway. I don’t know of any North American bird species that specialize in consuming ticks.