A recent case of the rare but deadly Powassan virus in Saratoga County has prompted U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., to call on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to allocate more resources for the study, prevention and treatment of tick-borne infections.
In May, a Saratoga County resident contracted Powassan, which is carried by the deer tick. According to county Public Health Director Karen Levison, the patient has recovered.
There have been just 15 identified cases of Powassan statewide over the past nine years, according to the state Department of Health. However, five of those patients died.
“Powassan is rare, but it can pose serious risks to health,” Health Department spokesman James O’Hare said in an email.
At a news conference Monday, Schumer voiced support for the proposed Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Prevention, Education and Research Act, which would expand research into Lyme disease, require the U.S. secretary of health and human services to produce a report to educate doctors and other health professions on the latest research and treatment options and establish a tick-borne disease advisory committee.
“Already, Lyme disease is one of the least understood illnesses plaguing residents of the Capital Region, the Hudson Valley and the Northeast,” Schumer said. “Now, with the emerging threat of new tick-borne illnesses like Powassan virus and antibiotic-resistant strains of Lyme, the need for more research is clear and compelling. We need to bring Lyme disease and the Powassan virus out of the weeds and better educate the public about how to keep themselves and their families safe.”
Albany County Health Commissioner Dr. James B. Crucetti said he was happy to see Schumer bring attention to Powassan and other tick-borne illnesses.
“Powassan has been around for quite some time,” he said, “but we need to be able to understand the epidemiology a bit more.”
Albany County’s only case of Powassan was diagnosed in 2004; the patient eventually recovered.
Tick-borne infections have risen steadily in the Capital Region over the past two decades. These diseases include Lyme, but also lesser-known ailments such as babesiosis, anaplasmosis and ehrlichiosis. Crucetti said more needs to be done to educate health care providers about the rarer tick-borne infections.
Earlier this summer, a study by the state Department of Health, the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook and the University at Albany reported Powassan is an emerging problem in the Hudson Valley. Over the course of five years, researchers found the virus in as many as 6 percent of 13,000 ticks collected from the area.
According to O’Hare, the Health Department has been testing for Powassan for more than 10 years.
“Powassan is not a new disease,” he said. “In addition, Powassan has been and continues to be included in education materials to providers and the general public. Each year, at the beginning of tick season, [the Health Department] sends an advisory to providers and to the public to alert them of the start of tick-borne disease season.”
The number of cases of Lyme disease in New York reported each year still dwarfs the number of cases of other types of tick-borne illnesses. Statewide, there are between 5,500 and 5,580 cases of Lyme each year.
Barbara Moss, of the Capital Region chapter of the Empire State Lyme Disease Association, said she was happy to see Schumer react to reports of the Powassan virus in the Capital Region, but added it was important to look at the whole picture.
“The big concern is Lyme,” Moss said.
Eva Haughie, a Suffolk County resident who serves as president of the Empire State Lyme Disease Association, said she doesn’t know anybody who has been diagnosed with Powassan.
Ticks can carry more than one disease at a time; the deer tick carries Powassan, Lyme, anaplasmosis and babesiosis. Ehrlichiosis is carried by the lone star tick.
To prevent tick bites and infection, public health officials recommend checking for tick bites after spending time outside, using insect repellent and wearing long pants, shoes and socks. Seventy percent of Lyme diseases cases cause a distinctive bulls-eye rash.