Experts warn of new tick-borne illness that attacks the brain

Published: May. 4, 2017 at 6:13 PM EDT
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COAL GROVE, Ohio (WSAZ) -- Experts are warning about a new virus spread by ticks that attacks the brain. It leads to death or disability in 60 percent of confirmed cases.

Though it's important to add that the closest instance of the Powassan virus of the area is in Virginia and Pennsylvania.

With another mild winter and plenty of rain, they are expected to be extra bad this year.

Amanda Jarvis, an active mother of four from Catlettsburg, Kentucky, is terrified about this new virus. She has her own horror story after a tick bite.

A walk, just near the woods and high grass, is far from enjoyable.

"I am terrified to be out here,” Jarvis said. “I don't want to step any closer."

Jarvis was bitten once in the forearm by a tick in 2013 and once in the thigh last year -- both while gardening. She just found out that she has Lyme disease on Feb. 28.

She has had a lot of health problems: nerve pain, joint pain, headaches and anxiety from the disease which also attacks the brain.

“I just want to crawl back up on the couch,” she said. “It just feels like someone poured acid all over my body.”

While she says she's happy to have a clear diagnosis, it’s also sad to know that treating it will likely take years.

As for the Powassan virus, there have been just 75 confirmed cases in the U.S. from 2006 to 2015. But 10 percent have led to death. Another 50 percent have led to permanent disability.

"This absolutely terrifies me,” she said. “It takes 15 minutes to transmit."

That compares to about 24 hours with Lyme disease.

"I think in this season, in this state, you absolutely should be concerned about tick-borne illnesses," said Dr. Thomas Rushton, infectious disease specialist at St. Mary’s Medical Center.

Those tick-borne illnesses include things like Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain spotted fever, along with many others.

But as for the Powassan virus itself, Dr. Rushton is not concerned.

"I am not,” he said. “It's very, very uncommon."

But with a lot of rain and another mild winter, a big tick population this year is expected, along with a large mouse and deer population which are carriers for the disease. So he said people do need to be careful.

Dr. Rushton said tick-borne illnesses should be taken seriously for two reasons. First, victims can get quite sick if they go undiagnosed. Second, most doctors don't think of them early on.

That’s why if you are having health problems and were outside hiking or saw a tick on you at some point, it can be a critical piece of info.

"Jog her memory,” he said. “Let him think about the possibility."

That's why Jarvis is sharing her story, warning others to take ticks seriously, a lesson she learned too late.

"It terrifies me,” she said. “I never thought I would get this."

The Powassan virus was discovered in 1958 in Ontario and is named for the community in which it was first discovered. Of the 75 confirmed cases in the last decade, more than two-thirds came from Minnesota, Wisconsin and New York.

While the 60 percent death or disability rate is very high, Dr. Rushton points out it's unknown how many other people had a milder case and never knew they were infected.

Other experts say the virus was present in other ticks early, but only recently mutated into a form that could be carried by the deer tick.

There are no vaccines or medications to treat or prevent it.

According to one study from Maine, seven percent of adult ticks and 10 percent of ticks in the nymph stage had the virus. But another study in New York found only 1 to 2 percent of ticks had the virus. It found that 20 percent carried the bacterium which causes Lyme disease.

As for Lyme disease, according to the CDC, there were 28,453 confirmed cases in 2015, along with 9,616 more probable cases. More than 95 percent came from 14 states. None of them include West Virginia, Kentucky or Ohio.

West Virginia had the most cases in the area with 243 confirmed and 46 probable. Ohio had 112 confirmed cases and 42 probable. Kentucky had 12 confirmed cases along with 37 probable.

There is a Facebook group called Tri-State Lyme Awareness that Jarvis is a part of and encourages others to join.

Here's some tips to avoid getting bitten by ticks:

  • Avoid areas of high brush when you're in the woods.
  • Wear long sleeves and pants when you can.
  • Check for ticks after every time you go outside.
  • Use insect repellent with DEET in it.

One last tip is to use a lint roller on your skin and clothes when you come indoors. It’s something that Jarvis already does on her children when they come in from the outside and something that Dr. Rushton mentioned, as well.

She also uses some essential oils on her kids to keep insects away.

Coming up Tuesday on First Look at Four, we'll go in depth on tick season and what it means for your health and how to guard against picking one up in the first place. Dr. Rushton will be in to chat as well as our home and garden expert, John Marra.