PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Department of Health is warning everyone to stay vigilant after a resident contracted a rare tick-borne disease earlier this year and later succumbed to complications.
The Health Department said a woman over the age of 80 from Washington County contracted the Powassan virus, developed neurological symptoms and died in mid-July.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) confirmed the case through laboratory testing earlier this month.
“It’s very tragic,” the Health Department’s Dr. Suzanne Bornschein said. “It really helps remind us all that illnesses carried by ticks can be very serious.”
Powassan is a tick-borne disease that is found mostly in the Northeast and the Great Lakes region of the country and in eastern Canada, according to the Health Department.
While Powassan is rare, the Health Department said the number of cases has increased in recent years. Between 2013 and 2022, there were 49 cases reported in Massachusetts and five in Rhode Island, according to the Health Department.
The last confirmed case in Rhode Island was reported two years ago.
Symptoms of Powassan include fever, headache, vomiting and generalized weakness. The disease can progress to meningoencephalitis, which can include altered mental status, seizures, aphasia (difficulty understanding or speaking), muscular weakness or paralysis and movement disorders. Those who contract severe Powassan disease often need to be hospitalized.
“Most people infected with Powassan virus don’t have any symptoms at all,” Bornschein said. “For people with symptoms, the time from when they’re bitten to when they feel sick can range from one to four weeks.”
There is no vaccine for Powassan, and most tick-borne diseases have to be treated by a doctor using antibiotics, according to the Health Department.
Stop Ticks: Repel, Check and Remove
Repel – Keep ticks off you, your children, and pets by:
- Avoiding wooded and brushy areas with high grass and leaves. If you are going to be in a wooded area, walk in the center of the trail to avoid contact with overgrown grass, brush and leaves at the edges of the trail.
- Wearing long pants and long-sleeve shirts when outside.
- Tucking your pants into your socks so ticks do not crawl under your clothes.
- Using an EPA-approved bug spray with the active ingredient DEET (20-30% strength) on your skin or clothes.
- Wearing light-colored clothing so you can see ticks more easily.
Check – Check yourself, your children, and pets, for ticks by:
- Taking a shower as soon as you come inside if you have been in grassy or wooded areas.
- Doing a full-body tick check using a mirror; parents should check their kids for ticks and pay special attention to the area in and around the ears, in the belly button, behind the knees, between the legs, around the waist, and in their hair.
- Checking your pets for ticks as well because they can bring ticks into the home.
Remove – Remove ticks from your body, as well as from children and pets, if you find them by:
- Using a set of tweezers to remove the tick. Grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull straight up.
- If you don’t have tweezers, use your fingers with a tissue or rubber gloves.