What is Powassan virus? Boy contracts rare illness from tick

Tick bites can infect people with viruses like Lyme disease and Powassan virus. (Newsday via Getty Images)
Tick bites can infect people with viruses like Lyme disease and Powassan virus. (Newsday via Getty Images)

A three-year-old boy from Pennsylvania has contracted Powassan virus after being bitten by a tick.

Jonny Simoson was playing in a neighbour’s pool when his mother, Jamie Simoson, noticed a tick on his shoulder, and quickly removed it with tweezers, as reported by Today.

But around two weeks later, the youngster had to be picked up from nursery after feeling “mopey” and “miserable,” and suffering from a headache and a loss of appetite.

He later developed a fever and was admitted to hospital. Although Ms Simoson told doctors that her son was bitten by a tick, he tested negative for Lyme disease, so they were unsure what was wrong.

Tests later diagnosed the three-year-old with meningoencephalitis, which is an inflammation of the brain and surrounding tissues. After receiving a treatment of intravenous immunoglobulin, the boy recovered and was released from the hospital two weeks later.

But it was only after his release – and around a month after he was bitten – that doctors found that  he had been infected by Powassan virus.

Now, his mother wants to raise awareness of the rare virus and how to prevent children from contracting tick-borne disease.

What is Powassan virus and how is it transmitted?

Powassan virus is a rare disease that’s spread to people by infected ticks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Very rarely is the virus spread from person to person via blood transfusion, and it cannot be spread through coughing, sneezing or touching.

It belongs to a group of viruses that can cause infections of the brain or the membranes around the brain and spinal cord, like encephalitis or meningitis.

What are the symptoms of Powassan virus?

Most people infected with Powassan virus do not experience symptoms, but those who do experience symptoms like fever, headaches, vomiting and weakness.

If the virus causes a severe disease, like encephalitis or meningitis, the symptoms can include confusion, loss of coordination, difficulty speaking, and seizures.

Powassan virus has been found in the US, Canada, and Russia. In the US, it’s mostly been found in northeastern states and in the Great Lakes region.

The virus is very rare. In 2020, there were only 20 recorded cases, down from 39 cases recorded in 2019.

How is Powassan virus treated?

There is no specific treatment for Powassan virus, but people with a severe disease are often hospitalised and receive treatment to help with their breathing and hydration, and to reduce swelling in the brain.

How to prevent tick bites

Although Powassan virus has not been found in the UK, some ticks in the UK carry the bacteria that causes Lyme disease and tick-borne encephalitis virus.

The NHS says people can avoid tick bites by doing the following:

  • covering your skin while walking outdoors and tuck your trousers into your socks

  • using insect repellent on your clothes and skin – products containing DEET are best

  • staying on clear paths whenever possible

  • wearing light-coloured clothing so ticks are easier to see and brush off

How to remove a tick safely

The NHS has issued advice on removing ticks safely:

  • Use fine-tipped tweezers or a tick-removal tool. You can buy these from some pharmacies, vets and pet shops.

  • Grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible.

  • Slowly pull upwards, taking care not to squeeze or crush the tick. Dispose of it when you have removed it.

  • Clean the bite with antiseptic or soap and water.

When to seek help after being bitten by a tick

The chance of getting ill after being bitten by a tick is low. The NHS says people should only see their GP after being bitten by a tick if they develop flu-like symptoms and/or have a round or oval shape rash.