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Rare tick-borne virus found in Waldo County, Maine

As spring rapidly rolls around, the sun makes a grand entrance after months of absence as the flowers leap into bloom. Rain and snow gradually become more sparse, and the winds only invite us to stand in front of them for a cool, refreshing blast of air.

In short, it is a wonderful time to be outdoors in Maine. However, with this comes plenty of risks, some easily avoidable with others less so. To get the best experience out of the state’s incredible natural environment, it’s important to be as safe as possible.

Recently, a resident of Waldo County, Maine died from an exceedingly rare yet highly dangerous tick-borne infectious disease known as Powassan virus.

“The adult developed neurologic symptoms and died while in the hospital; this person likely became infected in Maine,” according to a statement by the Maine Center for Disease Control.

Powassan virus is a Flavivirus, a class of virus known for containing particularly nasty pathogens like West Nile virus, Dengue virus, Zika virus, and the virus responsible for yellow fever. Unlike these diseases, however, infection by Powassan virus is extremely rare, with there being only a handful of cases in recent years.

The illness that follows Powassan virus infection is devastating. Following a bite with an infected tick, symptoms may not show up for up to three days to a week. The initial symptoms are relatively non-specific, with nausea, vomiting, fever, and headaches being the most common.

As the disease progresses, a loss of coordination, extreme headaches, sensitivity to light, and neck stiffness begin to set in, indicating meningitis (an inflammation of the membrane lining the brain) and encephalitis (inflammation of the brain itself).

If left untreated, Powassan virus infection often leads to death or lifelong neurological damage.

The rarity of Powassan virus is not a significant cause of relief either. Due to the sheer infrequency and lack of knowledge of Powassan virus infection, no easy tests are able to detect it.

Most of the time, Powassan virus is detected with complex technology available only in highly advanced laboratories, which is often inaccesible for small towns. As a result, the best way to avoid infection by Powassan virus (and other similarly-transmitted diseases) is to avoid tick-infested areas.

Ticks come in many shapes and sizes, but a few particular types are especially worthy to note. Deer ticks and groundhog ticks are notorious for carrying a variety of transmissible diseases, including not only Powassan virus but also Lyme disease, Borrelia miyamotoi disease, and anaplasmosis, all diseases with potentially life-long consequences.

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

Thankfully, there are many ways to mitigate the risk of tick bites and infections with tick-borne diseases. SJ Tinker, the College’s Director of Outdoor Education and Leadership, has offered a brief yet informative guide on how to reduce the risk of tick bites and deal with them if they were to occur:

You should wear light-colored, long-sleeved clothes and refrain from wearing shorts or sandals. Keep skin exposure to a minimum. Wearing long socks can also prevent tick bites.

You should also know where ticks typically live. They are already active in April and hide in the woods, beneath leaf litter, and in tall, grassy fields. If you plan to explore any of these areas, take necessary precautions, such as using tick repellant. Avoid animals that are known to have ticks.

If a tick does bite, grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible with a pair of tweezers. Pull upward but do not squeeze, twist, jerk, or bend the tick; doing so risks breaking off the mouth parts under the skin, which can lead to further infection.

Dispose of the tick in alcohol, hydrogen peroxide, soap, or some other disinfecting chemical. Don’t break the ticks; this could lead to contamination with pathogen-containing fluid. Inform a doctor of the bite and look out for any symptoms of illness.

More information about ticks can be found on the official website of the Maine Center for Disease Control.

The outdoors is a key part of the Colby experience for many community members. Therefore, to enjoy it in the best way possible, it is important that we watch out for things that can be dangerous to us. With this being said, stay safe, and have fun.

~ Dimitri Lin `25

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