For many people, summer means vacationing in the outdoors, swimming in lakes, and hiking in the woods. Summer also means tick season, and this year is predicted to be an especially bad one.
Ticks are typically associated with Lyme disease, an illness that can lead to infection in the joints, heart, and central nervous system. But they are capable of transferring at least a dozen other pathogens, including one potentially fatal virus that has caught the attention of both local and national media this year: Powassan virus, a tick-borne virus that can lead to inflammation in the brain, central nervous system disease, and in severe cases, death.
The virus was originally discovered in woodchuck ticks in 1958, but didn’t spread to deer ticks, the kind most famous for spreading Lyme disease throughout much of the Northeast and Midwest, until the mid-1990s.
Powassan remains rare, with only 70 cases reported between 2006 and 2014. But like Lyme disease, symptoms don’t reveal themselves in all carriers, so that reported number is likely to be on the lower side. And doctors are still playing catch up to better understand the virus — there’s no exact treatment for the it, nor is there a vaccine.
VICE News accompanied Dr. Rafal Tokarz, an Associate Research Scientist at Columbia University’s Center for Immunity and Infection, who studies the effects of tick-borne pathogens on human, as he collected ticks for his research on tick-borne pathogens.
Though Powassan is cause for serious concern, Tokarz doesn’t think it should deter people from enjoying their time outside this summer. But he’s quick to advise outdoor enthusiasts to remain vigilant. “Always check yourself,” Tokarz says, “That’s the number one thing.”