RIDOH Reports Case of Rare Tick-Borne Disease Powassan

Published on Tuesday, August 15, 2023

The Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) is reporting a confirmed case of the tick-borne Powassan virus disease (Powassan) detected in a Rhode Island resident who later died after contracting the disease. Laboratory testing was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which confirmed the finding earlier this month. The case involved a female over the over the age of 80 from Washington County, who developed neurological symptoms and died in mid-July.

Powassan is a tick-borne disease that is found mostly in the Northeast and the Great Lakes region of the U.S. and in eastern Canada. Over 239 cases of Powassan have been reported in the United States in the past 10 years (2013-2022). Powassan cases are rare, but the reported number of cases has increased in recent years. Between 2013 and 2022, there were 93 cases of Powassan reported in New England: 49 cases in Massachusetts, 18 cases in Connecticut, 16 cases in Maine, five cases in New Hampshire, and five cases in Rhode Island.

Initial symptoms of Powassan include fever, headache, vomiting, and generalized weakness. The disease usually progresses to meningoencephalitis, which may include meningeal signs, altered mental status, seizures, aphasia (difficulty understanding or speaking), paresis (muscular weakness or paralysis), movement disorders, or cranial nerve palsies. People with severe Powassan disease often need to be hospitalized. There is no vaccine or treatment for Powassan, so preventing exposure to ticks is the best strategy to avoid this disease.

RIDOH and the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (DEM) remind Rhode Islanders to take steps to prevent tick-borne diseases, including Powassan and Lyme Disease, when spending time outdoors. RIDOH has launched its annual summer tick safety campaign with prevention messages featured on television, radio, and social media. The Tick Free Rhode Island campaign highlights the three keys to tick safety: 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. Check the product label to find the concentration of DEET in a product. (Do not use bug spray with DEET on infants under two months of age. Repellents should contain no more than 30% DEET when used on children. Children should be careful not to rub their eyes after bug spray has been applied on their skin. Wash children’s’ hands with soap and water to remove any bug spray when they return indoors.)
  • 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.

  • Use 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.

For more information on Powassan, Lyme disease, and other tick-borne diseases, visit health.ri.gov/ticks.