Maine CDC reports death from exposure to rare tick-borne Powassan virus

May 17—A Sagadahoc County resident has died from exposure to the Powassan virus, a rare tick-borne illness.

The adult developed neurologic symptoms after being exposed and died in a hospital, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday. No other identifying information was available, which is typical in these cases.

This is the state's first case of Powassan virus this year. The CDC has tracked hundreds of cases of more common tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease, anaplasmosis and babesiosis so far in 2023.

Powassan is exceedingly rare — only about 25 cases are reported annually in the entire U.S. — but it can be serious. Since 2015, Maine has identified 15 cases, including four last year. There have been two other deaths in recent years. One was a Waldo County resident in April 2022, and the other was a longtime Portland educator who contracted the virus in 2019 and died in January 2022. Her family disclosed the cause of death in her obituary.

Powassan virus is acquired through the bite of an infected deer tick or woodchuck tick, the CDC said. Tick season is well underway in Maine and experts predict significant activity after last year, when a record 2,617 cases of Lyme were reported.

Griffin Dill, an integrated pest management professional for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension's tick lab, told the Press Herald last month that although this year's tick season started slowly, he doesn't expect a drop-off.

"I don't expect we will have a lower season overall, just a slightly slower start to the season," he said. "There are a myriad of factors that could negate this slow start, so it's hard to say whether a slightly later start to the spring is going to noticeably impact tick populations."

The CDC urges people to take precautions when spending time outdoors, such as avoiding leaf litter, wearing long, light-colored pants that make spotting ticks easier and staying on paths when walking in the woods. Conduct tick checks if you've been in tick habitat. An adult deer tick is the size of a sesame seed, while nymphal deer ticks are the size of a poppy seed, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many people infected with Powassan do not develop symptoms, but for some it can lead to serious neurologic problems, such as brain or spinal cord inflammation. About 10% of people who develop severe symptoms die. There is no medication for treating Powassan, but people with severe cases are often hospitalized and receive support for breathing, hydration and reducing brain swelling.