Tick-spread virus claims life of northern Minnesota womanA northern Minnesota woman is dead from a virus caused by the bite of a deer tick, the Minnesota Department of Health reported Wednesday.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
A northern Minnesota woman is dead from a virus caused by the bite of a deer tick, the Minnesota Department of Health reported Wednesday.
The woman, who was in her 60s, was the first person in Minnesota to die from the Powassan virus, the health department said in a news release. The virus, caused by the bite of an infected deer tick (aka blacklegged tick), caused a brain infection.
Doug Schultz, department spokesman, declined to release more specific information about where the woman was from. She could be easily identified if the county she lived in was released, he said, and federal law prohibits release of a victim’s name. The county is sparsely populated and “is in your coverage area,” Schultz told the News Tribune.
Guy Peterson, public health director for St. Louis County, said he was aware of the death and that it occurred in north-central Minnesota. The news is a reminder for people throughout the region to be cautious about tick encounters.
“Anybody that goes out in a wooded area, especially a brushy area, could be exposed to these ticks,” Peterson said.
The woman was one of two people to contract Powassan virus in northern Minnesota this year, the news release said. The other involved an Anoka County man, also in his 60s, who was hospitalized with a brain infection after visiting his cabin in northern Minnesota. He was released from the hospital and is recovering at home.
Both people became ill in May after spending time outdoors and noticing tick bites, the news release said. The woman who died probably was exposed near her home.
Deer ticks are more common in Wisconsin and the middle counties of Minnesota than in the north, Peterson said.
But their territory is expanding, said Dr. Johan Bakken, a consultant in infectious diseases at St. Luke’s hospital in Duluth.
“Deer ticks are migrating north, maybe because of the warm climate, maybe because of the mobility of the ultimate host animal for the deer ticks, which is the white-tailed deer,” Bakken said. “So the deer serves as a taxicab.”
Powassan cases are rarely identified, said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist with the health department in the news release. But they are fatal in 10 percent of cases, and survivors may experience long-term neurological problems. Since the disease is caused by a virus it can’t be treated by an antibiotic.
Powassan virus was first detected in Minnesota in 2008 in Cass County, and five additional cases were identified over the next two years in Cass, Carlton, Hubbard, Itasca and Kanabec counties, the release said.
The virus, first described in 1958 in Powassan, Ontario, is related to West Nile virus and can cause inflammation of the brain (encephalitis) or the lining of the brain and spinal cord (meningitis).
Bakken said he’s familiar with Powassan but hasn’t treated it. “And I’m glad to say I have not, because when you encounter someone with clinical Powassan fever encephalitis it’s a pretty devastating illness,” he said.
Even after victims have recovered physically, they may experience cognitive difficulties such as loss of ability to concentrate and frequent headaches for a long time, Bakken said.
Symptoms occur within one to five weeks after an infectious tick bite and may include fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, loss of coordination, speech difficulties and memory loss, the news release said.