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New virus activates Deer & Tick Foundation

REPORTER FILE PHOTO  Dragging for ticks at Mashomack.The POW virus is transmitted by infected black legged ticks
REPORTER FILE PHOTO Dragging for ticks at Mashomack.The POW virus is transmitted by infected black legged ticks

Lyme. Babesiosis. Ehrlichiosis Aalpha gal red meat allergy related to lone star tick bites. The list of tick-borne diseases grows. Now add Powassan (POW) disease, not new, but on the rise in the northeast.

In New York State, there have been 21 cases recorded by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention between 2007 and 2016. It’s not an alarming statistic, but the number of cases has been steadily increasing in recent years. And while it’s not on The East End’s doorstep, a few cases have been reported in nearby Connecticut.

The POW virus is transmitted by infected black legged ticks. Patients experience symptoms of fever, headaches, vomiting, weakness, confusion, seizures and memory loss.

Some patients have been hospitalized to improve respiration, receive intravenous fluids and medications to reduce swelling in the brain. Effects from the virus have sometimes resulted in brain damage and death.

The POW virus can be transmitted within 15 minutes of a bite, rather than the 24 to 36 hours it generally takes for Lyme to be transmitted to humans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A new study released this month by the Envita Medical Center in Scottsdale, Arizona says “Powassan is on the move.” Although the disease had been “relatively unheard of” with less than 10 cases a year in the country, “with two consecutive warm winters, tick populations have exploded and both Lyme and POW infections are predicted to increase dramatically,” the report said, referring to the movement of the disease to the northeast.

Despite efforts being made on the Island, there is still limited data on how many patients are being diagnosed with a tick-borne disease. What’s known is that East End doctors are putting patients on a short-term antibiotic after a tick bite even if those patients haven’t yet tested positive for a tick-borne disease.

“Powassan adds a new level of complexity to the chronic Lyme disease landscape,” the Envita study says, while many patients show no symptoms until it has progressed and resulted in seizures, loss of coordination, and trouble breathing.

As many as 50 percent of those who develop the illness could have long-term neurological damage. For 10 to 15 percent it could be fatal, according to the Envita study.

Shelter Island Deer & Tick Management Foundation president Janalyn Travis-Messer, who provided the Reporter with the Evita study, said that the dormant foundation has come alive to try to raise money to fund efforts to reduce the tick population.

The foundation came into being as the Cornell University-Cornell Cooperative Extension pilot 4-poster pilot program was preparing to launch in 2008. The 4-poster program deploys feeding stands that brush deer with a tickicide, permethrin.

The foundation successfully raised what Ms. Travis-Messer estimates as hundreds of thousands of dollars through the years to help  purchase and maintain the 4-poster units.

But as grants began flowing from New York State and the town’s Deer & Tick Committee took on the issue, there was less attention given to the foundation, Ms. Travis-Messer said.

“Now the foundation is very much alive” and working to educate the public about tick-borne diseases and raising funds to support both 4-posters use increased culling of the deer herd on which ticks feed.

When the foundation first gained prominence, Rae Lapides was president and opposed culling. Money was allocated only to 4-posters and education, Ms. Travis-Messer said.

That’s no longer the case with the foundation willing to support any worthwhile effort to reduce the tick infestation.

“Culling is important,” she said, agreeing with Police Chief Jim Read, who oversees hunting on the Island, that foundation members want to know increased money will result in more deer taken. A pilot hunting project in February and March is expected to get more hunters in the field here, with Town Animal Control Officer Beau Payne exploring ways to provide incentives to achieve that goal.

While Mr. Payne works out details, Ms. Travis-Messer hopes that those who weren’t aware of the foundation will contribute funds to help pay the costs associated with the existing three-pronged program of education, use of 4-poster units and culling.

Contributions are tax-deductible. Checks should be made to the Deer & Tick Management Foundation and mailed to P.O. Box 964, Shelter Island, New York 11964.