Former Marine's death renews concerns over rare tick-borne illness

A lab technician in the entomological sciences division at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center looks at a tick sent in by a health clinic for identification.


By DAVID SINGLETON | (Hazleton, Pa.) Standard-Speaker | Published: June 18, 2019

HAZLETON, Pa. (Tribune News Service) — The tick bite Armand Desormeaux, 80, received while gardening two weeks earlier was mostly forgotten by May 5, as he spent several hours with his son-in-law at Mount Airy Casino Resort in Paradise Township.

“They were out gambling and having a great time,” said Desormeaux’s daughter, Dianne Rude.

The next day, the Marine Corps veteran from Sussex County, New Jersey, fell ill with what Rude now knows was a rare, tick-borne disease called Powassan virus. A day after that, he was hospitalized.

As his condition deteriorated, Desormeaux would not recover. He died late on the night of May 15.

“I never expected a little bug to take down my strong Marine,” Rude, 48, said Wednesday.

Desormeaux’s death is raising renewed concerns about the Powassan virus, a rare, but potentially fatal, tick-spread sickness that made its first Pennsylvania appearance eight years ago in Lackawanna County.

His was one of two Powassan cases confirmed last week in Sussex County, which is just across the Delaware River from Pike County.

The second case was confirmed in a person who is now recovering at home, Donna M. Leusner, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Health, said in an email.

Named after the Ontario town where it was first discovered in the 1950s, the Powassan virus is spread by the bite of an infected black-legged or deer tick — the type also responsible for Lyme disease — or an infected woodchuck tick, according to New Jersey health officials. It cannot be spread from one person to another.

Only about 100 cases of the virus have been reported in the U.S. during the past decade, with most of those in the Northeast and Great Lakes states, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control said.

Although many people infected with the Powassan virus do not develop symptoms, others might experience fever, headache, encephalitis (swelling of the brain), meningitis (swelling of the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord), vomiting, weakness, confusion, loss of coordination, trouble speaking and memory loss, according to health officials.

The symptoms can show up one week to one month after infection. There are no vaccines to prevent nor medicines to treat Powassan, according to the CDC.

While Lyme disease is by far the most prevalent tick-borne disease in Pennsylvania — with 11,900 confirmed cases in 2017, the last year for which figures are available — it is far from the only one, state Department of Health spokesman Nate Wardle said in an email.

Although he described Powassan as “somewhat common” in Pennsylvania, he also acknowledged there have been only six cases ever documented in the state.

“We do encourage physicians to test for it,” Wardle said.

Powassan was unknown in Pennsylvania until a case was identified in Lackawanna County in 2011.

The virus didn’t appear again in the state until 2017, when four cases were documented, all in eastern Pennsylvania — one each in Pike, Susquehanna, Northampton and Lehigh counties. Four cases also were reported that year in northern New Jersey, including the two in Sussex County.

The sixth case happened last year in Northampton County.

At the Pennsylvania Tick Research Lab at East Stroudsburg University in Monroe County, which offers free tick testing to Pennsylvania residents using $500,000 in state funding it received last year, the Powassan virus is one of the pathogens it checks for, said lab director Nicole Chinnici.

“Residents send in their ticks and we test them and determine what you have been exposed to,” she said. “We are not diagnosing anybody with any disease. We’re just letting you know that, hey, this tick was a carrier of, say, Lyme disease or Powassan virus.”

The test results can help guide the resident and their physician toward early diagnosis and treatment if symptoms consistent with a tick-borne illness appear later, Chinnici said.

Since the free testing began April 1, the lab has tested almost 5,500 ticks submitted by Pennsylvanians.

About half of the black-legged ticks tested were infected with something, including about 30% with Lyme disease, Chinnici said. The infection rate found so far for Powassan virus is about 3%.

Chinnici called Powassan “tricky,” saying it can be difficult to diagnose.

One thing that distinguishes Powassan is how quickly an infected tick can transmit the virus to a human host, she said. For a tick to infect a human with Lyme disease, the tick needs to be attached for at least 18 to 24 hours; the tick can transmit the Powassan virus in 15 minutes.

“So any tick bite can put you at risk of the Powassan virus,” Chinnici said.

Although New Jersey officials have not disclosed the identities of the Powassan-positive residents, and Leusner said the state cannot confirm whether the elderly resident’s death resulted from the virus, Rude said she will seek to have her father’s death certificate amended to list Powassan as his official cause of death.

Desormeaux would be the 10th confirmed Powassan fatality in the U.S. since 2008, according to the CDC.

Rude, who lives next door to her father’s home and shared his story on social media to make their friends and neighbors aware of the potential danger, said she had never heard of Powassan virus until Desormeaux’s infectious-disease doctor mentioned it at the hospital.

The doctor wanted the CDC to run some tests “on the outside chance” Desormeaux had the virus, but explained it is very rare and downplayed the possibility, Rude said. She was shocked when the physician called her and said the CDC confirmed Powassan.

“Everything completely made sense,” Rude said. “It was like click, click, click. It was just all of the exact symptoms.”

The Pennsylvania Tick Research Lab at East Stroudsburg University offers free basic tick testing to all Pennsylvania residents.

The lab will analyze your tick, testing for tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease, anaplasmosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

To order your test online and learn whether you’re at risk before symptoms appear, visit www.ticklab.org.

The website also provides information on tick identification, tick-borne diseases and tick-bite prevention.

©2019 the Standard-Speaker (Hazleton, Pa.)
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