Experts are warning that summer may bring an increase of a rare and life-threatening tick-borne disease known as Powassan.
The virus is transmitted by three types of ticks, including the deer tick, which is best-known for spreading Lyme disease. CNN reports that although there have been only 75 cases of Powassan in the past 10 years, an unprecedentedly warm winter has stoked fears that there is an increased chance of infection.
The Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that most cases of the Powassan virus have occurred in the Northeast and Great Lakes region. The virus has the potential to infect the central nervous system, causing inflammation of the brain or the surrounding membrane. Almost half of the survivors report long-term neurological symptoms even after recovery, saying they still suffer from memory loss, muscle wasting, and recurring headaches.
"About 15% of patients who are infected and have symptoms are not going survive," said Dr. Jennifer Lyons, an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, according to CNN. "Of the survivors, at least 50% will have long-term neurological damage that is not going to resolve."
Usually, there are only mild, flu-like symptoms associated with Powassan, meaning that those infected may not be able to catch the infection in time.
"You basically feel nonspecific flu-like stuff," said Lyons, "muscle aches and pains; maybe you have a little rash on your skin, but almost certainly, you'll have a fever and the headache."
The ticks are most active during the spring and summer months. Because of unusually warm weather over the past two years, the tick population has reportedly radically increased.
"This year so far, we've received hundreds of ticks," said Goudarz Molaei, a researcher at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. "Since April 1, we've received nearly 1,000 ticks."
As of now, there are no treatments for the Powassan virus, though researchers have been trying different things.
"There are some experimental therapies we try when somebody comes in and they get here early enough and we get the therapy started early enough, but we have no idea if any of that works," said Lyons.
Dr. Daniel Pastula, an assistant professor of neurology at University of Colorado Denver, says that the general population should be extra careful this summer to prevent tick bites. He recommends avoiding high brushy areas and wearing long sleeves and pants when hiking. He also recommends using insect repellent and conducting tick checks after going outside.
"Essentially, you don't need to worry about Powassan if you don't get bit by a tick," he said.