Rare Virus Spread by Ticks Kills Maine Resident

A Maine resident died of a Powassan virus infection, which is spread by bites from infected ticks.

deer tick on woman's jeans
There’s no specific treatment for Powassan disease. The best protection against the virus is prevention of tick bites.Helin Loik-Tomson/iStock

An adult in Maine has died of a rare tick-borne virus, according to public health officials.

The resident of Waldo County, in southern Maine, died after being treated in the hospital for neurological symptoms caused by a Powassan virus infection, the Maine Center for Disease Control (Maine CDC) said in a statement. Three types of ticks — groundhog or woodchuck ticks (Ixodes cookei), blackleggged or deer ticks (Ixodes scapularis), and squirrel ticks (Ixodes marxi) — can spread Powassan virus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Powassan virus is rare in the United States. Nationwide, a total of 194 cases and 22 deaths were reported between 2011 and 2020, according to the CDC. All the fatalities involved patients who developed neurological symptoms, which can include encephalitis (an infection of the brain) or meningitis (an infection of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord).

In the United States, people who develop Powassan infections typically live in the Northeast or Great Lakes region, according to the CDC. Most cases occur in late spring, early summer, and mid-fall when ticks are most active.

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

Many people with Powassan virus infection don’t get sick, Maine CDC said. Those who do typically start to experience symptoms one week to one month after the tick bite. Illness may involve fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, seizures, or memory loss.

In severe cases, people can develop encephalitis or meningitis or experience symptoms such as confusion, loss of coordination, difficulty speaking, and seizures, according to the CDC. One in 10 people with severe disease die. About half the people who survive severe disease have long-term health problems such as recurring headaches, loss of muscle mass and strength, and memory problems, the CDC notes.

There’s no specific treatment for Powassan disease, according to Maine CDC. The best protection against the virus is prevention of tick bites. Maine CDC offers the following tips to prevent tick bites:

  • Avoid known tick habitats like wooded and bushy areas with tall grass
  • Use an EPA-approved repellent on skin. Use permethrin on clothing for added protection.
  • Perform tick checks every day, and especially after leaving tick habitat and after returning home. Bathe or shower after coming inside, to wash crawling ticks off your body. Examine clothing, gear, and pets.

Ask a veterinarian about tick bite prevention for cats and dogs.