Deadly tick-borne virus on watch in Wisconsin

Virus is worse than Lyme disease

A deadly virus called Powassan is on the rise in Wisconsin. Experts say it's worse than Lyme disease, and is spread to people through infected ticks. 

The virus has only been confirmed in 10 states.  As of 2015, Wisconsin had the second highest number of reported cases and new numbers show the the total has gone up.

"There's no spot left where we've gone to look for them and haven't found them," said Dr. Susan Paskewitz, a UW-Milwaukee Entomologist.

Tick bites are commonly associated with Lyme disease, but they can also spread Powassan virus.  The illness is more rare, but also more dangerous.  Lyme disease can be transmitted when a tick attaches for 24 hours while Powassan takes 15 minutes.

"Unfortunately it is a disease that can often have a pretty severe impact.  People die as a result of Powassan infection," Paskewitz said.

At least eight people in the U.S. have died from the illness since 2006. 

There was one reported case of the illness in Wisconsin in 2015.  New numbers from the Wisconsin Health Department show there were four last year.

“It attacks the brain itself.  Causes inflammation and infection of the brain and because of that patients who have had this viral encephalitis can have significant neurological problems if they recover, " said Dr. Jeannina Smith, an infectious disease doctor.

Symptoms include fever, headache, nausea and weakness.  Many people don't experience any symptoms and half of those infected have lasting neurological problems, but there isn't a cure.

"I don't think people need to be fearful of it because it is so rare, but it is out there and it is one more reason for people to do those careful tick checks at the end of the day," Paskewitz said.

There have been 24 cases in Wisconsin since 2003.  The Health Department says there are no reports of the virus anywhere in the state yet in 2017. 

 

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