Introducing mutant animals just increases the risk of potentially very dangerous new disease outbreaks. Just after scientists engineered ticks to contain Lyme disease, a virus outbreak warning has been issued in the US after an “unusually high” number of ticks were found to be carrying a deadly neurological disease.
More than 90 percent of ticks sampled in the Lawrence Township Recreational Park, in Clearfield County, Pennsylvania, were found to carry the rare and potentially fatal Deer Tick Virus.
For comparison, the highest infection rate previously recorded at a single location in Pennsylvania was only 11 percent — and for the whole of the US around 25 percent.
Last year, the statewide average infection rate for Deer Tick Virus among adult ticks was just 0.6 percent, reported the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
While Deer Tick Virus is rare in the US, positive cases among the human population have been increasing in recent years, experts have warned, with most cases since 2008 having been detected in the Great Lakes region.
In 2019, researchers predicted that cases of Lyme Disease — spread by the same tick species — will increase by 20 percent in the coming decades, meaning that cases of Deer Tick Virus will likely experience a similar rise.
Increasing infection rates are credited to a combination of rising humidity and temperatures giving a boost to tick populations and their ranges, while increased urbanisation in the states is leading to growing deer and mice populations on which the insects usually feast.
A type of Powassan virus — and therefore a relative of the dengue, West Nile and Zika viruses — Deer Tick Virus is spread primarily by bites from so-called black-legged or deer ticks, which are found in the US Midwest and southeastern Canada.
Fortunately, the infection does not spread from person-to-person by coughing, sneezing, or physical contact. Initial signs of infection can include fever, headache, vomiting and weakness, although some individuals may experience no symptoms at all.
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), however, a whopping 91 percent of patients treated for Deer Tick Virus go on to develop severe neuroinvasive disease and may experience encephalitis or meningitis, both infections of the brain.
Symptoms of those with severe disease can include confusion, coordination problems, difficulty in speaking and seizures. Severe infection is fatal for around 12 percent of patients, while half of the remainder go on to suffer from long-term health impacts.
DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell said: “The infection rate of ticks sampled from the Lawrence Township Recreational Park is extremely high. “Deer Tick Virus transfers very quickly through the bite from an infected tick, and the health outcomes […] are more severe than other tick-borne illnesses typically seen in Pennsylvania.”
In fact, the DEP noted, infection from Deer Tick Virus can develop in as little as 15 minutes after a bite — compared to the 24 hours or more seen with other tick-borne infections such as Lyme Disease.
At present, there are no vaccines to prevent the contraction of Powassan infections like Deer Tick Virus, nor medicines to effectively treat them. [Express]
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