Powassan virus found in 5 upstate NY tick pools

ALBANY - An ultra-rare, sometimes-fatal virus was found in 22 total ticks from five separate pools in upstate New York, state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said Tuesday.

State health regulators boosted surveillance of ticks earlier this year after confirming three cases in Saratoga County of the Powassan virus, a tick-borne illness that has caused death in about 10 percent of cases nationwide.

That extra surveillance turned up 2,700 ticks at 30 locations in Saratoga County.

Of those, five pools comprising 22 ticks tested positive for Powassan, Zucker said at a state Senate hearing Tuesday.

"The enhanced surveillance will continue in the fall with collection of adult ticks from many of these same sites, as well as collection and testing of blood from hunter-killed deer, for previous exposure to Powassan," Zucker said.

Zucker said the state will begin publicly posting its tick-collection data next year on healthdata.ny.gov.

The hearing Tuesday was co-hosted by Senate Health Committee Chairman Kemp Hannon, R-Long Island, and Sen. Sue Serino, R-Hyde Park, Dutchess County, whose district has long claimed some of the highest rates of Lyme disease in the country.

Powassan virus has similar symptoms to Lyme disease, including fever, headache, vomiting and general confusion. But the symptoms can be serious, including potentially life-threatening swelling of the brain.

The Powassan virus, meanwhile, is far more rare, with just 77 confirmed cases referred to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 2006 through 2015. Of those, eight resulted in death.

Zucker said New York has had 23 confirmed Powassan cases prior to 2017.

Of the three Saratoga County cases this year, one resulted in death.

In previous years, Powassan has been found in the Hudson Valley, including five cases since 2004 in Dutchess County alone.

Serino, who chairs the Senate's Lyme disease task force, and the panel of senators heard Tuesday from regulators, doctors and Lyme disease patients at the hearing, which was held in the Legislative Office Building near the state Capitol.

Along with state Health Department officials, county-level regulators testified Tuesday at the Senate hearing, including representatives from Dutchess and Putnam counties.

"This is a huge problem for people to battle -- physically, emotionally and financially," said Sen. George Amedore, R-Rotterdam, Schenectady County.

Zucker noted Lyme disease and tick-borne illness was once a problem largely confined to the Hudson Valley and Long Island.

That's no longer the case, he said. Each year, there are about 9,000 cases of tick-borne illness reported to the state Department of Health each year, including 8,000 cases of Lyme disease.

"There are undoubtedly many more cases, particularly of Lyme disease, that are treated by community physicians and not reported, or do not meet the case definition," Zucker said.

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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