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Powassan Virus - the Uglier, Nastier New Kid on the Block

Last week we wrote about Lyme disease, it’s spread throughout the UK, the role conservation plays in terms of its potential spread and what control is needed to ensure the future spread of the disease is minimised. This week we continue on the theme of tick-born diseases, as the number of infections from existing and emerging tick-born diseases continues to rise on both sides of the Atlantic.

Of all the diseases that can be transmitted from tick bites, one disease in particular is a real emerging cause for concern amongst the field ecology community. The Powassan virus is currently confined to the eastern coast of North America but its rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the most serious and worrying diseases that can be contracted from ticks.

The disease was first identified in Powassan, Ontario (Canada) but in terms of reported cases, has spread into the northeastern and Great Lakes region of the United States. In common with Lyme disease, the Powassan virus is contracted from the bite of ticks, which are common throughout this region of North America. However, unlike Lyme disease, which typically takes more than 24 hours to pass from the bite of a tick Powassan virus can be transmitted in as little as 15 minutes. Infection from the Powassan virus can result in a range of lesser symptoms from fever, headache, nausea, occasional confusion and weakness. However, in rare occasions, the disease can result in encephalitis (swelling of the brain), which if left untreated has the capacity to result in meningoencephalitis. Unfortunately, unlike Lyme disease, which can be treated with antibiotics in the early stages of the disease, there is currently no vaccine or cure for the Powassan virus.

Thankfully the number of reported cases of the Powassan virus is low, and with the disease confined to North America, the risk to field ecologists working in Europe is negligible. That said, the majority of professional ecologists will be able to appreciate what the risks will be to a general population if the virus is spread from North America into Europe. It is for this reason that all field ecologists should continue to take preventative measures to ensure their exposure to ticks and risk from tick bites is minimised. After all, complacency is not an excuse for taking health and safety seriously.

Image Credit: Nicooografie & Meli1670 (Pixabay)

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