Emergence Of Rare But Dangerous “Deer Tick Virus” In Pennsylvania

Several Pennsylvania state agencies stated today in a tick-awareness event that the “rare but dangerous” deer tick virus, which was discovered at its highest infection rate ever in Clearfield County in January, has been detected in multiple sites across the state.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s Tick Surveillance and Testing Program, more than 80% of ticks sampled carried deer tick virus at Fisherman’s Paradise public fishing areas near Bellefonte in Centre County, Iroquois Trail near Tunkhannock in Wyoming County, and Lawrence Township Recreation Park in Clearfield County.

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In January, the DEP stated that ticks at the Lawrence Township facility had a 92 percent infection rate, the highest ever documented anywhere in the country.

The previous highest rate observed in a single place in Pennsylvania was 11%, while the greatest rate published in scientific literature nationally was around 25%.

DTV is a form of Powassan virus that is spread by blacklegged ticks, often known as deer ticks. It is rare in the United States but has been on the rise in recent years.

Within 15 minutes of a tick bite, it can be transmitted from tick to human, causing encephalitis or meningitis, hospitalisation, and death in around 12% of people with the severe form of the disease.

Fever, headache, vomiting, and weakness are some of the first symptoms of a DTV infection. Because some persons who are infected with DTV have no symptoms, infection can go unnoticed. However, 91 percent of DTV infection patients acquire severe neuroinvasive illness.

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Patients with severe DTV disease may develop encephalitis or meningitis, necessitating hospitalisation. Symptoms include confusion, loss of coordination, trouble speaking, and convulsions.

Approximately 12% of people with severe disease have died, and approximately half of those who survive severe sickness have long-term health consequences.

Other tick-borne infections, such as Lyme disease, take much longer to infect the host, generally 24 hours or more after the insect bites.

DTV has been found in 15 Pennsylvania counties, but infection rates are only 0.6 percent outside of the three “hotspot” areas.

In 2021, Pennsylvania’s statewide average DTV infection rate was 0.6 percent.

“For some time, Lyme disease has been present in all 67 counties, and sadly, the incidence of the very dangerous deer tick virus appears to be growing in some tick populations,” DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell stated.

“Pennsylvanians should learn about the threats posed by tickborne diseases and take commonsense precautions so they can enjoy our abundant natural resources—and the many wonderful physical and mental health benefits of outdoor recreation—as safely as possible,” said Cindy Adams Dunn, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

“We may avoid cases of Lyme disease and other tickborne infections by learning where ticks reside, seeking treatment if symptoms occur, and following best practises for prevention,” said Pennsylvania Department of Health Physician General Dr. Denise Johnson.

“Take preventative precautions against ticks,” said Pennsylvania Game Commission Executive Director Bryan Burhans.

“Among the precautions hunters (and others) can take to avoid tick bites and be safe while enjoying their favourite activity include treating clothing and gear with insect repellent and thoroughly inspecting for ticks after returning from the field.

Anglers and boaters should also wear insect repellant clothes or keep a tick repellant bottle in their tackle box, according to Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission Executive Director Tim Schaeffer.

Even in the winter, when temperatures are in the mid-30s and above, blacklegged ticks are active.

Anyone venturing outdoors should take the following precautions:

Before going outside, use permethrin-based tick repellents on clothing and EPA-registered insect repellents like DEET on exposed skin. Reapply as needed, following the directions on the product package.
Wear light-colored outerwear and tuck your shirts into your pants and your pants into your socks.
Avoid woody and brushy regions with low-growing plants and long grasses that may harbour ticks by walking in the centre of pathways.

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When you go home, take off all of your clothes, shower, and put them in the dryer on high heat to destroy any ticks that may still be present. Ticks should be checked on backpacks and other goods.
Using a hand or full-length mirror, inspect the entire body for ticks, including the scalp, ears, armpits, belly button, and between the legs.
When you bring your pets inside, make sure they haven’t been exposed to tick habitats.
If you find a tick stuck to your skin, carefully remove it with tweezers, including the head. Keep an eye out for symptoms and call your doctor if you have any concerns.

Visit the Tickborne Diseases webpage of the Department of Health for further information on tickborne disease prevention.

The ticks that tested positive for DTV were detected during routine testing as part of the DEP’s active tick monitoring programme, which began in 2018 and is a five-year pilot programme. Tick habitats, life stages, and peak activity levels are tracked, and ticks are tested for human dangerous diseases in every county in Pennsylvania.

Adult blacklegged ticks are analysed for emerging and changing disease burdens in public use habitats across Pennsylvania, such as parks, playgrounds, recreational fields, and state game properties, during the fall and winter seasons.

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