As Summer Approaches Experts Worry Over Deadly Tick-Borne Virus

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DES MOINES, Iowa  --  For many people, simply mentioning the word ‘ticks’ makes the skin crawl; but if tick-borne illnesses like Lyme Disease or Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever isn't enough, now experts are worried by a new, deadlier virus.

It's called the Powassan Virus; it's spreading, there's no cure, and 10% of the cases are fatal.

The virus itself isn't new, but experts say it has recently mutated.

“In recent years this virus has switched into a different type of tick host, a vector that can actually be more widespread into deer ticks which spread Lyme's Disease and a whole other slew of tick-borne pathogens” said Dr. Ryan Smith, an Iowa State Professor of Medical Entomology

Unlike Lyme Disease, the transition of Powassan can be fast.

“With Lyme Disease, you're looking at a little bit over a day for the bacteria to be transmitted. From my understanding this can happen within an hour” said Dr. Smith.

But how widespread is the virus? Since 2006 there have only been 68 cases nationwide. However, that number has increased over the years.  Meanwhile, it has only been reported in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and on the East Coast; but that doesn't mean Iowa is out of the woods.

“Iowa has yet to see a case of Powassan Fever, but we do have the ticks. So, if we have the ticks, we're always at risk, and since this is relatively new and spreading this could be on the very near future” said Dr. Smith.

The thought of that is scary.  The virus attacks the nervous system, and if patients survive, there can be long term effects.

“A lot of the stuff is almost like they've had a stroke, so long term weakness, long term thinking difficulties or memory problems, things along those lines that they may have to go to rehabilitation for” said Geoff Wall, Professor of Pharmacy Practice at Drake University.

What's also concerning to doctors is the lack of specific symptoms.  Powassan initially causes a flu-like fever, headache, vomiting and weakness; with later symptoms of confusion, loss of coordination and speech difficulties.  Some patients show no symptoms at all.

With no vaccine doctors can only manage the inflammation while the body fights off the virus.

“Prevention is the key here because you don't want to get it” said Professor Wall.

Dr. Smith says bites are best prevented by using bug spray with DEET, wearing long clothes in the woods, and constantly checking yourself for ticks.