Aggressive tick-borne virus behind death in Maine expected to become more common as climate warms

Health officials in Maine have reported the first death this year from an intractable tick-borne disease, putting Americans on high alert as warm-weather outdoor activities begin.

Robert J. Weymouth, a 58-year-old man from Topsham, Maine, died of complications from the Powassan virus, which caused severe neurological problems, according to the Maine Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The disease is extremely rare, with around 25 cases reported each year since 2015, but it is also untreatable and can lead to serious health problems, including infection of the brain, called encephalitis, or of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord, known as meningitis. .

Many people who become infected with the virus do not develop symptoms, but those who do usually notice it up to a month after being bitten by an infected tick, which could include flu-like symptoms, seizures, swelling of the brain and, in up to 15 percent of cases, death.

The Weymouth death marks the third Powassan death in Maine since 2015, and as the winters get warmer and shorter, the world becomes a more hospitable place for disease-causing ticks.

Robert Weymouth passed away after about two weeks in hospital.  His medical team discovered too late that the inflammation in his brain was caused by the Powassan virus.

Robert Weymouth passed away after about two weeks in hospital. His medical team discovered too late that the inflammation in his brain was caused by the Powassan virus.

The tick that is the main transmitter of Powassan is Ixodes scapularis, also known as the blacklegged tick or deer tick, as it occurs on deer.

The tick that is the main transmitter of Powassan is Ixodes scapularis, also known as the blacklegged tick or deer tick, as it occurs on deer.

The tick that is the main transmitter of Powassan is Ixodes scapularis, also known as the blacklegged tick or deer tick, as it occurs on deer.

In the US, Powassan disease has been found primarily in the Northeastern states and the Great Lakes region.

In the US, Powassan disease has been found primarily in the Northeastern states and the Great Lakes region.

In the US, Powassan disease has been found primarily in the Northeastern states and the Great Lakes region.

Maine officials warn residents to watch out for ticks when going outdoors, especially in wooded, leafy, and brushy areas.

Deer ticks, which transmit the Powassan virus thrive in temperatures above 45˚F and in areas with at least 85 percent humidity. The shorter winters are expected to extend the period that ticks are active each year, increasing the time humans could be exposed to diseases like Powassan and Lyme.

The Powassan virus usually kills one in 10 people who become infected, but the virus can be much more dangerous in older people and people with weakened immune systems.

The Powassan virus is rarely diagnosed (only a few dozen cases are detected each year) because most people who contract the virus are asymptomatic.

Annemarie Weymouth, widow of Robert, said a local Maine news affiliate that her husband was immunocompromised and had rheumatoid arthritis. Initially, she did not go to the hospital for Powassan’s symptoms.

Mr. Weymouth went to the Maine Medical Center when he noticed swelling in his arm and a knee problem that required surgery. But then, he lost all feeling on the right side of his body.

Shortly afterwards, an MRI revealed that Mr Weymouth had severe brain swelling, indicating that the virus had reached an advanced stage. A lumbar puncture confirmed that the tick-borne virus was the culprit.

Because many people infected with the Powassan virus will have no symptoms, doctors often can’t focus on it as a possible diagnosis until they have done complete blood or spinal fluid tests.

Mr Weymouth’s widow said she was frustrated by how little the doctors around her husband seemed to know about the disease. She was in the hospital for weeks before the medical team determined that she had the virus.

By the time Weymouth was determined to be positive for Powassan, it was too late.

His widow said: “Even if they had known from day one that it was Powassan, there is no known treatment for it.”

She added: ‘I think if we knew this disease was out there, we would have been more diligent. We do check for ticks, but we would have used more spray and been more careful.’

Maps showing the spread of the Powassan virus in Northeast America

Maps showing the spread of the Powassan virus in Northeast America

Maps showing the spread of the Powassan virus in Northeast America

The tick that is the main transmitter of Powassan is Ixodes scapularis, also known as the blacklegged tick or deer tick, as it occurs on deer.

The hard-bodied, blacklegged tick lives in the eastern and northern Midwestern US, as well as southeastern Canada, and is also a carrier of Lyme disease.

Ticks are most common in wooded areas, of which Maine has many.

Currently, there are no vaccines or drugs against the disease, and treatment focuses on relieving symptoms, including trouble breathing and swelling of the brain.

There are two types of Powassan viruses: lineage 1 and lineage 2. Only lineage 2 is carried by the blacklegged tick.

Cases typically arise when ticks are most active in late spring, early summer, and mid-fall, primarily in the Northeastern states and the Great Lakes region.

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