When a Maine woman died suddenly in 2013 after a tick bite, the state went on alert against the dangerous virus that claimed her life.
Marilyn Ruth Snow, a Rockland-area artist, fell ill almost immediately after finding a tick stubbornly embedded in her shoulder that November. She died just weeks later.
At the time, Powassan virus hadn’t been documented in Maine in nearly a decade. Much rarer than Lyme disease, but transmitted more quickly and potentially more devastating, Powassan had appeared in only 50 cases across the country over the previous decade.
Since then, two cases of Powassan have been reported in Maine, both in Cumberland County. The virus caused encephalitis, or brain swelling, but thankfully neither case was fatal.
The cases prompted Maine researchers to wonder just how many ticks crawling around the woods and fields of Maine carried the virus. Recently, they released the results of a statewide survey.
Staff at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute’s “tick lab” collected adult and nymph (immature) deer ticks from 30 towns across 11 of Maine’s counties between June 2015 and December 2016.
“We were kind of surprised that we found as much as we did,” said Chuck Lubelczyk, a vector ecologist at MMCRI.
But, he added, “As much as we did find it in some places, there were quite a few places where we did not find it.”
Here are the preliminary results:
- Out of 203 pools of adult ticks, 15 tested positive for Powassan. The virus was found largely in the southern part of the state, but also in Augusta and on Swan’s Island in Hancock County.
- Out of 21 pools of nymph ticks, two tested positive for Powassan, in Wells and Cape Elizabeth.
- No Powassan was found east of Mount Desert Island or in northern Maine, even though researchers collected many ticks in those regions. Tick-borne infections are known to move though, as we know all too well from Lyme disease.
- A growing population of ticks was found in eastern and western regions of Maine. While previous research has documented the presence of the deer tick in coastal areas up through southern Penobscot County, this study marked the first substantial collection of ticks from the Moosehead Lake region, the Machias area, and Somerset County.
Thanks to BDN data ace Darren Fishell for the map.
Another interesting finding:
While public health campaigns often target nymphs as carriers of disease, adult ticks are just as much of a concern with Powassan. The three Maine individuals contracted Powassan during the adult tick season, in fall and early spring, and 7 percent of the adult ticks researchers collected carried the virus. So summer isn’t the only time of year to be sure to wear your bug repellent and take other tick precautions.
The Powassan virus
Hunting for ticks
Avoiding ticks: Tips from the CDC
- Choose light-colored clothing so it’s easier to spot ticks; wear long sleeves and and tuck your pants into your socks.
- Use an EPA-approved insect repellent.
- Check your skin and clothing for ticks and remove them promptly. Don’t miss warm, moist areas such as the ears, armpits and neck, and have someone else check your back.
- Wash possible tick bites with soap and water and apply an antiseptic.
- Keep your lawn mowed and tidy to remove tick habitat.
- If you spot an embedded tick, use a tick spoon or tweezers to grasp its mouth and pull it out with steady pressure. Don’t use petroleum jelly, hot matches or nail polish remover, which can increase the risk of infection.