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As Deadly Tickborne Disease Arrives In Region Senators Want More Support, Funding



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NEW HAVEN — Just days after two of Connecticut's federal representatives called for more tickborne disease funding, two cases of a potentially deadly tick-related virus were identified in the state.

On June 11 at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, US Senator Richard Blumenthal called for a surge in federal funding to prevent and address Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses. Then, on June 15, the Connecticut Department of Public Health (DPH) announced two Connecticut residents tested positive for Powassan virus (POWV) infection.

These are the first cases of POWV associated illness identified in Connecticut in 2021. During 2016 to 2020, 10 cases of POWV associated illness were reported in Connecticut, including 2 in 2020. Two of the infections were fatal.

The patients, who are between 50-79 years of age, became ill during the third week of April. Laboratory tests performed at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Laboratory in Ft Collins, Colorado confirmed the presence of antibodies to POWV.

Both patients were hospitalized with central nervous system disease and have been discharged and are recovering. The patients reside in Fairfield and New Haven Counties.

"The identification of two Connecticut residents with Powassan virus associated illness emphasizes the need to take actions to prevent tick bites while ticks are most active, from now through the late fall." said DPH Acting Commissioner Deidra S. Gifford, MD, MPH. "Using insect repellent, avoiding areas where ticks are likely, and checking carefully for ticks after being outside can reduce the chance of you or your children being infected with this virus."

Powassan virus is spread to people through the bite of an infected tick black-legged, or ‘deer’ tick. It takes 1 week to 1 month after the bite of an infected tick to develop symptoms of POWV disease, and the virus can be transmitted in as little as 15 minutes after the tick first attaches. Powassan virus associated illness have been reported from early spring until late fall.

While most people infected with POWV likely experience no symptoms or a mild flu-like illness, some people will develop severe illness affecting the central nervous system. About 1 out of 10 cases of severe illness are fatal and approximately half of survivors experience long term health problems. Severe cases may begin with fever, vomiting, headache, or weakness and rapidly progress to confusion, loss of coordination, difficulty speaking, or seizures.

There is not a vaccine or a specific treatment for POWV associated illness. Severe illnesses are treated by supportive therapy which may include hospitalization, respiratory support, IV fluids, and prevention of other infections.

For information on Powassan virus and how to prevent tick bites, CLICK HERE.

Seeking Greater Support

In a letter sent to the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, Blumenthal, along with US Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Chris Murphy (D-CT), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Edward J. Markey (D-MA), called for $50 million to bolster the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) efforts to prevent and address tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease, including $20 million for grants for states.

Blumenthal also called for $12 million to support the Department of Defense’s (DOD) Tick-Borne Disease Research Program in a letter co-led with Gillibrand, sent earlier this week.

“We are sounding the alarm because the number of ticks is exploding nationwide, and the new species are invading Connecticut. With a mild winter, early spring, and lots of rainfall the stage is set for an increasing number of ticks, and the rate of detecting Lyme disease at 46% is pretty constant and pretty alarming. About half the ticks you find will have Lyme disease. If you find a tick on you, have it tested. If you are going into the woods wear long sleeves and long pants, and take insect repellent,” said Blumenthal during a press conference at the Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven.

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection primarily transmitted by deer ticks, which are typically found in wooded and grassy areas. At least 300,000 people nationwide are diagnosed with Lyme disease each year, and the incidence of this disease has increased by more than 300 percent over the past 25 years, in part due to climate change.

“Despite the rising incidence and costs of Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses like Powassan, research into strategies for preventing, diagnosing, treating, and surveilling these diseases has historically been underfunded. The CDC invests only $191 for each new Lyme disease case, despite the high health care costs endured by many individuals with Lyme and other tick-borne diseases and our health care system as a whole,” wrote the senators in the letter.

Providing Local Guidance

Earlier this spring, The Newtown Bee published a print report and hosted a subsequent live webcast featuring Health District Director Donna Culbert and Goudarz Molaei, PhD, a research scientist, director of the Passive Tick Surveillance Program at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, and associate clinical professor of epidemiology of microbial diseases at the Yale School of Public Health.

By June 15, the Newtown Health District had collected 132 ticks with 97 results returned. Of those 97, 41 tested positive for Lyme Disease with a number of them testing positive for additional TBDs according to District Administrative Assistant Maureen Schaedler, who also was part of the webcast.

View the webcast below:

Molaei said in 2020, about 50% of ticks were infected with either Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, or babesiosis. About 40% of those were infected with Lyme, 10% with babesiosis, and another 10% with anaplasmosis; more than 5% were infected with two of these diseases, and 2% with all three.

“Potentially every tick in Connecticut is [biologically] capable of carrying all three,” he said — although he only has data related to the black-legged or deer tick. The state has also long harbored common dog ticks, and more recently Lone Star ticks. The largest new proliferation is in lone star ticks, which have increased from about 0.2% several years ago, to more than 3% today.

“To make the matter worse, this 3% is coming from Fairfield County — so because they are coming from such a small region [proportionately] it is equal to between 10 and 20% or more that we are receiving for testing,” he said. “Today we are seeing this species in both Fairfield and New Haven county.”

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