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A deer tick, left, is dwarfed by a regular wood tick. Brad Dokken / Forum Communications Co.

Minnesota reports first death from Powassan virus, a tick-borne disease

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GRAND FORKS - A woman in her 60s from northern Minnesota has died from a brain infection due to Powassan, or POW, virus, according to the Minnesota Department of Health. This is the first death in the state attributed to the disease, a West Nile virus relative transmitted through the bite of an infected deer tick - the same type of tiny tick that carries lyme disease.

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But unlike lyme disease caught in early stages, POW is untreatable with antibiotics, which has state officials again urging people to be diligent about preventing tick bites.

"One other likely POW case has been identified this year in Minnesota, in an Anoka County man in his 60s who was hospitalized with a brain infection and is now recovering at home," a Health Department news release said.

According to the Health Department, both 2011 cases became ill in May after spending time outdoors and noticing tick bites. The fatal case was likely exposed to ticks near her home, the department said.

"The case from Anoka County might have been exposed near his home or at a cabin in northern Minnesota," the release said.

"Although Powassan cases are rarely identified, it is a severe disease which is fatal in about 10 percent of cases nationwide, and survivors may have long-term neurological problems," said Dr. Ruth Lynfield, state epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health.

In Minnesota, POW virus can be transmitted by the blacklegged tick, also known as the deer tick, which in addition to lyme disease can also carry anaplasmosis and babesiosis, the release said.

"The blacklegged tick is abundant during our warm-weather months in hardwood and mixed-hardwood forests of Minnesota. When a tick infected with POW virus attaches to a person, it might take only minutes of tick attachment for the virus to be transmitted," Lynfield said in a statement.

POW was first detected in Minnesota in 2008, in a Cass County child who was exposed near home.

The Health Department said five additional POW cases were identified in Minnesota in 2009-10. These cases were likely exposed to infected ticks in north-central or east-central counties (Cass, Carlton, Hubbard, Itasca or Kanabec).

In addition to these human cases, MDH has found POW-infected ticks in northern counties (Cass, Pine and Clearwater - the latter in northwest Minnesota) and in southeastern Minnesota (Houston County).

According to the Health Department:

POW virus was first described in 1958 in Powassan, Ontario. Since then, about 60 cases have been identified in North America. Most of these cases were from eastern Canada and the northeastern U.S. until the last decade, when cases began to be reported from Michigan, Wisconsin and now Minnesota.

The Health Department recommends always using tick repellents containing DEET (up to 30 percent concentration) or permethrin when spending time in tick habitat. Products with DEET can be used on the skin or clothing. Permethrin-based products, which are only applied to clothing, are highly effective and can last through several washings and wearings.

Also, wear long pants and light-colored clothing to help detect and remove ticks before they've had time to bite. People with homes or cabins near the woods can also use landscape management and targeted pesticide applications to reduce exposure to disease-carrying ticks.

After returning from outdoors, check your body carefully for ticks and promptly remove any you find. The process of bathing or showering shortly after returning indoors can help remove ticks before they bite or before they've been attached for long.

To remove a tick, use tweezers to grasp it by its head close to the skin and pull it out gently and steadily.

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