Tick alert: Powassan Virus in Pontiac

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Our Environment by Katharine Fletcher

There is an alarming increase in populations of ticks in West Quebec and Eastern Ontario. With numbers of these insects rising in the Pontiac and Gatineau area, people are justifiably concerned about contracting Lyme disease.

Our Environment by Katharine Fletcher

There is an alarming increase in populations of ticks in West Quebec and Eastern Ontario. With numbers of these insects rising in the Pontiac and Gatineau area, people are justifiably concerned about contracting Lyme disease.
Lyme disease is carried by some black- legged (aka “deer”) ticks and, unfortunately, it’s a difficult disease to identify. The Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation (CLDF), lists more than 100 symptoms, where the signature identifying feature (a “bull’s-eye mark” surrounding the bite) is inconsistently present. Its presence alerts doctors to the disease, whereupon they’ll administer antibiotics which may prove effective in curing the victim.
CLDF explains, “with chronic Lyme disease, there is not one system of the body that can be unaffected…”. Check the CLDF website for a thorough explanation of symptoms, plus tick identification and removal tips (bit.ly/2iqjgqw).
However, the Powassan virus is another dangerous disease deer ticks can carry. Whereas Lyme can be contracted in 24 hours and, if diagnosed and treated in the first 24-48 or so hours, may (possibly) be cured with antibiotics, the Powassan virus is transmitted by infected ticks within 15 minutes. There is no known cure.
What is this new tick-borne health threat?
POWASSAN VIRUS
The virus is named after a boy who died of encephalitis in 1958, in a Northern Ontario town called Powassan. Powassan virus symptoms include fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, seizures, speech difficulties, confusion, swelling of the brain (encephalitis), and swelling of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord (meningitis).
Therefore, Powassan virus is extremely serious and potentially life-threatening.
PONTIAC POWASSAN VICTIM
All this might seem alarmist and “theoretical” – think again. In August 2017, in Luskville, someone was bitten by a tick infected with the Powassan virus, and she contracted the disease.
Although choosing to remain anonymous, this person agreed to an interview because, “I want to help spread the word about this potentially deadly disease. This virus is a game changer. The medical people are behind the eight-ball on this, playing catch-up, so I felt I needed to act to help warn people about it.”
During our interview, she explained, “I was fortunate to find the tick on my shoulder; if it had been on my back, I wouldn’t have seen it. I kept it and showed it to my doctor, who gave me an antibiotic — this is normal treatment for tick bites. From Ottawa, the insect was sent to a Winnipeg lab (at minimum a two-month testing process). Meanwhile, I flew to Kelowna in BC, and after three weeks, due to the gravity of my illness, the doctors there were able to put the tick’s analysis to the front of the queue, and it was determined to have Powassan.”
POWASSAN ENCEPHALITIS
This person is now back at home after several months of extremely debilitating conditions, including Powassan-induced encephalitis. She was hospitalized in ICU for a week, where her husband and children were told she might die.
Fortunately, she is back home, re-learning how to walk, slowly regaining arm function, but still has double-vision in one eye and needs assistance with many daily activities including dressing.
“I was extremely fit, did yoga and weights, and took no medications. I was told if I’d been in compromised health, the Powassan virus could have killed me.”
POWASSAN, LYME MEAN
BEHAVIOURAL CHANGE
There is no known cure for Powassan virus. And Lyme disease may result in permanent, disabling symptoms. So it’s important to cover up even in hot summer days, and also to wear insect repellant.
During the interview, this woman said, “What the increasing numbers of ticks mean is that what we’ve all taken for granted about freedom for children and adults during summertime is gone. We must be totally covered up when we go outside. Searching for ticks and tick bites must become routine.”
She noted some people are installing mirrors and better lights in their bathrooms, so they can spot ticks on their bodies if they are alone.
What’s crucial? If you discover a tick biting you, remove it carefully and pop it in a sealable container. Then go to the hospital – with the tick.
SOBERING NOTE
I’ve heard that ticks are still active in November because it takes prolonged hard frost to make them dormant. So continue taking precautions, please.
Finally? Check your cats and dogs for ticks, too.

Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer, author, and visual artist. Contact her at fletcher.katharine@gmail.com