Schumer: First Case of Rare Tick-borne Illness, Powassan Virus, Found in Capital Region

Backyard danger can pose a serious public health problem; ticks with Powassan virus can start infecting within 15 minutes of human contact.

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Albany, NY - August 6, 2013 - On the heels of the discovery of Powassan Encephalitis, an often fatal tick-borne illness, in the Capital Region, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer today called on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to immediately allocate resources towards the study, prevention and treatment of the emerging Powassan virus threat. Schumer also announced his support for federal legislation to direct more resources and attention towards fighting back against the growing problem of other tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease, Babesiosis and more.
This May, the first local case of Powassan virus was found in Saratoga County, and researchers have also recently found the virus in a significant number of ticks in the Hudson Valley. The Powassan virus causes debilitating symptoms similar to Lyme disease, but it is much more dangerous: it can transmit much more quickly than Lyme disease, there is currently no treatment for Powassan virus, and it is much more lethal – killing 30% of those affected statewide since 2004. In addition to his push for the CDC to focus on this little-known threat, The Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Prevention, Education, and Research Act would help combat the new and growing epidemic by improving and expanding the federal government’s efforts to contain the spread of these and other tick-borne illnesses. The bill would expand research into Lyme disease, improve education of the public, and require the Secretary of Health and Human Services to produce a report to educate doctors and other health professionals on the latest research and treatment options for the disease. Schumer explained that research from the CDC and development of a specific plan to help address this new virus, and other tick-borne diseases is a crucial complement to his legislation, and will help inform the treatment and prevention research funded by his bill.
“Already, Lyme disease is one of the least-understood illnesses plaguing residents of the Capital Region, the Hudson Valley and all of the Northeast.  Now, with the emerging threat of new tick-borne illnesses like Powassan virus and antibiotic-resistant strains of Lyme, the need for more research is clear and compelling. We need to bring Lyme disease and the Powassan virus out of the weeds and better educate the public about how to keep themselves and their families’ safe,” said Schumer. “Lyme disease is a problem we’ve seen for decades, and Powassan virus is a rare but dangerous disease now present in New York—and we haven’t done nearly enough at the federal level to tackle it. That’s why I’m calling for a one-two punch to help boost research on treatment and prevention at the federal level: first, I am asking the CDC to look specifically at the Powassan Virus, and second, I am pushing legislation that would provide the resources and organization to advance research and education into tick-borne illnesses.”
Schumer, joined by Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings, Albany County Executive Dan McCoy and Commissioner of Health for Albany County Dr. James Crucetti, urged the CDC to swiftly fund research focused on containing and treating the Powassan virus, and to work with local health departments on diagnosis and prevention methods.  Schumer also announced his support for The Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Prevention, Education, and Research Act, introduced by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). This legislation aims to coordinate increased research of all tick-borne diseases and develop educational programs for the public in order to increase awareness of these conditions. The legislation would also educate physicians on emerging tick-borne illnesses, like Powassan virus and Babesiosis, and establish treatment plans in those cases. The legislation would establish a reporting system to advise health professionals on treatment options, and better coordinate the expertise of local health departments with the treatment of community health centers.
“I fully support the Senator's initiative regarding this matter,” said Karen Levison, Director of Public Health for Saratoga County. “My hope is that while research is indeed need regarding all of these diseases continuing to emerge in our area, that the senator will find an opportunity to stress the need for prevention for all, but also to stress that the real concern is for those populations that seem to be more susceptible, such as anyone immune-compromised, the elderly and young children.  As would be expected with any infection/virus, due to co-illnesses and the developing immune systems in children as they grow, they are at greater risk for more severe illness.”
“While Powassan Virus is not new, it is quite rare,” said Albany County Executive Daniel P. McCoy. “The case in Saratoga County is a reminder that we need to adequately protect ourselves when we go outside.  That means wearing light colored clothing, long sleeves, long pants and insect repellent. Education and prevention are critical.  Thank you, Senator Schumer for calling for legislation to study what can be done to address this potentially deadly threat.”
Schumer explained, as reported in the Albany Times Union, that while only 15 cases of Powassan virus have been discovered statewide in the last nine years, there had been less than one case a year in the previous 40-year period, according to the state Health Department’s Arbovirus Laboratories in Slingerlands. In addition, researchers at the Health Department and the Cary Institute found larger-than-expected numbers of ticks infected with Powassan virus in the Hudson Valley, particularly east of the Hudson River, over a five-year period ending in 2012. In a study of 13,500 ticks, researchers found as many as 6 percent with the virus, depending upon county. Schumer also noted that over the same period, 14 patients statewide tested positive for deer tick virus, a variant of Powassan that causes the same symptoms. One patient was from Albany County, and ten of those patients were in Westchester, Putnam and Dutchess counties — consistent with the cluster of infected ticks. Schumer explained that Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses can spread across geographic areas in ticks that travel with deer; the presence of these illnesses in Saratoga County, Albany County and in Hudson Valley ticks should raise concern in Upstate New York.
The Powassan virus is a rare but emerging tick-borne illness that is transmitted by the same deer ticks that transmit Lyme disease. But unlike Lyme disease, there’s no treatment for Powassan virus; doctors can only address the symptoms. The virus can cause central nervous system malfunction, meningitis and encephalitis — brain swelling. Also unlike Lyme, the Powassan virus can be transmitted within 15 minutes of a tick bite, whereas Lyme can take up to 24 hours to transmit – meaning if a tick is caught within a day of the bite, the transmission of Lyme can be prevented.
In addition to the Powassan virus, the number of other tick-borne illnesses reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is on the rise, led by Lyme disease, but also including anaplasmosis, babesiosis and ehrlichiosis. The Hudson Valley had been the national epicenter of such diseases for years. But in 2011, the last year for which information is available, locations in the Capital Region were second only to the Hudson Valley.  Rensselaer and Saratoga counties were behind only Orange County for the most reported cases of Lyme disease outside New York City. While Lyme can be treated effectively with antibiotics if caught early, some patients suffer lingering, debilitating symptoms. Lyme disease, though highly curable if it is detected in its early stages, is difficult to diagnose as its symptoms are similar to the common flu. The “bull’s eye” rash that accompanies infection of the disease at the site of the tick bite often goes undetected especially on darker skin tones. Most cases can be treated with antibiotics when detected early, however, in the event the antibiotics do not work there is no real agreement among medical authorities and institutions over how the illness should be treated.
The Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Prevention, Education, and Research Act would aim to educate the community in order to increase awareness of tick-borne illnesses and the warning signs for such conditions, as well as educate the health community to aide in accurate diagnosis of these illnesses, especially new conditions such as Powassan virus. The legislation would increase public education through the Community Based Education Programs at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and create a physician-education program that includes the full spectrum of scientific research related to Lyme and other tick-borne diseases. 
The Lyme and Tick-Borne Disease Prevention, Education, and Research Act also directs the Secretary of HHS to develop more accurate and time-sensitive diagnostic tools to strengthen surveillance and reporting of Lyme and other tick-borne illnesses, which would help determine prevalence of various illnesses. This provision would be particularly helpful in developing strategies to combat the spread of emerging illnesses like Powassan virus and Babesiosis. This would provide doctors and health care professionals with the tools necessary to better diagnose and treat these illnesses in the Ulster community. Increasing community knowledge of the symptoms and treatment for tick-borne illnesses will allow both patients and physicians to be more proactive in the course of treatment, and vigilant against potential infections in the event of a tick bite.
Additionally, the legislation would establish a Tick-Borne Diseases Advisory Committee within the Office of the Secretary of Health and Human Services in order to streamline coordination with other federal agencies and private organizations addressing tick-borne illnesses. Also to further improve research and education on the diseases, the legislation requires the Secretary of HHS to publish a report at the end of each advisory term evaluating published guidelines and current research available on Lyme disease, in order to best educate health professionals on the latest research and diversity of treatment options. It further requires the Secretary of HHS to submit to Congress a report on the activities carried out under this act including a copy of the most recent annual report issued by the Tick-Borne Diseases Advisory Committee. 
 A copy of Senator Schumer’s letter to the CDC appears below:
Dear Dr. Frieden:
I write today to respectfully request the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) assist New York in its recent occurrence of a certain tick-borne illness, the Powassan Virus. More research is needed to understand this potentially deadly virus and create a treatment for people infected with the virus.
Powassan virus (POWV) is a rare tick-borne illness that can cause encephalitis or an irritation or swelling of the brain. In an October 2012 case report, CDC declared that POWV is an “emerging and potentially severe tick-borne infection in Minnesota and Wisconsin,” after cases were reported there. In New York, there have also been recent reports of POWV cases and I request that you devote resources to studying these and making any appropriate recommendations to assist the local communities in New York in addressing this serious health issue.
Recent reports have suggested that the instances of POWV are increasing in New York as the first case was recently reported from the Capital region of New York. Previously, cases were reported in the Hudson Valley area. The CDC should be looking into these new cases and conducting research on how to prevent the further spread of this virus.
Due to the fact that no treatment currently exists for POWV, it is imperative that the federal government work with the New York Department of Health and any other localities to educate and prepare local health care professionals and the public on how to best avoid situations where a tick bite may occur.  
We must do all that we can to ensure that the public’s health is not in danger. I believe a coordinated effort between the CDC and local health departments are the best way to make this happen. Powassan virus should be studied and steps towards creating a treatment for those infected should be put in place. It is of critical importance to the health of New York residents to act promptly in these efforts.
Thank you for all that you do to protect the health of all Americans, and for your consideration of this important and very timely request. Please let me know if I can be of assistance.
Charles E. Schumer
U.S. Senator