The recent death of an elderly North Jersey man who had contracted Powassan virus after a tick bite has stirred public concern over the rare, incurable and sometimes deadly disease.
When 80-year-old Hampton resident Armand Desormeaux died on May 16, his death became just the second in New Jersey associated with Powassan since the virus was first found in the state in 2013.
Desormeaux had been gardening when he was bit by a tick on April 15, according to a New Jersey Herald report. It is unclear if the Powassan virus directly caused Desormeaux’s death.
But Desormeaux is not the only recent Powassan-linked death in the region. In Stockertown, Pennsylvania, about 40 miles south and across the Delaware River from Hampton, 69-year-old Ron Smith was killed by the virus in December.
Anita Smith, Ron’s wife, told NJ Advance Media that her husband was hospitalized the day after Thanksgiving. Ron remained under constant medical care for weeks until he died on December 18. Through it all, Anita said he “didn’t have a clue” what was happening to him.
Anita said the Pennsylvania Department of Health later notified her that her husband had been diagnosed with Powassan.
The agency declined to comment on Ron Smith’s death, citing patient privacy, but did confirm that there was one reported case of Powassan last year in Northampton County, where he lived.
Like Desormeaux’s death, it is hard to know if Powassan was directly responsible for Ron’s death. But Anita believes the virus is to blame.
“He wasn’t sick coming into this thing,” Anita said. “The [virus] killed him.”
It’s hard to know if that region of Northwestern New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania is conducive to higher rates of Powassan, said Alvaro Toledo, a tick-borne disease expert at Rutgers.
Toledo did say that there has been an increase in the number of reported Powassan cases nationwide in recent years, but he said there’s a good chance that’s because doctors are getting better at spotting the disease.
“You have to recognize the disease in order to diagnose it,” Toledo said. “If there is suspicion, people tend to test and report more.”
Following Desormeaux’s death and a second confirmed Powassan case in Sussex County this year, the New Jersey Department of Health has recommended that clinicians statewide consider the virus when diagnosing patients, according to spokeswoman Donna Leusner.
Powassan was first found in New Jersey in 2013, when the disease caused the death of a Warren County woman. Since then, there have been nine confirmed cases of the disease in the Garden state according to Leusner. Of those cases, six have been in Sussex County while Warren, Morris and Essex counties have had one case each.
Powassan virus — which was first identified in Powassan, Ontario in 1958 — affects the central nervous system and can cause swelling of the brain, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The virus is fatal for about 10% of people who contract it. About half of survivors are left with permanent neurological problems, including recurrent headaches and memory loss.
The virus is carried by two ticks in New Jersey: Blacklegged (or deer) ticks and woodchuck ticks. The blacklegged ticks are the main concern because they are widespread in the state and frequently bite people. Woodchuck ticks, on the other hand, rarely bite humans.
A tick must actually bite to spread Powassan, Sussex County Health Office Jim McDonald said. The disease cannot spread from person to person.
Many people infected with the Powassan virus do not develop any symptoms, according to the Sussex County Division of Health, but those that do may experience the following:
- Loss of coordination
- Trouble speaking
- Memory loss
- Swelling of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord (meningitis)
- Swelling of the brain (encephalitis)
There is no vaccine for Powassan, and there is no treatment for the disease once it is contracted.
“It’s up to your immune system to get rid of it,” Toledo said.
Experts like Toledo and McDonald stress that the most important thing people can do to protect against tick bites is to wear long pants and long sleeves — and use bug repellent — when heading into the woods.
Since her husband’s death, Anita has taken new steps to try and manage ticks on her five-acre property. She keeps the lawn cut short, especially near wooded areas. And she’s thinking about getting chickens, because the birds eat ticks.
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