For the first time, a Minnesotan has died of a brain infection from a rare tick-borne virus called Powassan, the state Health Department reported Wednesday.
The victim was a woman in her 60s from northern Minnesota, health officials said. In addition, an Anoka County man in his 60s was hospitalized with a brain infection after he contracted the Powassan virus in May. He is recovering at home, officials said.
The Powassan virus is spread by deer ticks, which also carry Lyme disease. But only about 60 cases have been identified in North America in the 50 years since it was first identified in Powassan, Ontario, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
Dr. Ruth Lynfield, the state epidemiologist, said Powassan infections can strike the central nervous system and the brain, and are fatal in about 10 percent of cases.
Because it's caused by a virus, Lynfield said, the disease is not treatable with antibiotics, "so preventing tick bites is crucial."
Both victims, who were not publicly identified, became ill in May after spending time outdoors and after noticing tick bites, the Health Department reported. Officials say the woman likely was exposed near her home, while the man may have been infected near his home or at a cabin in northern Minnesota.
The Powassan virus, which is related to West Nile virus, was first detected in Minnesota three years ago, in a child in Cass County. Five more cases were reported in 2009 and 2010, and officials say those individuals probably were exposed to infected ticks in Cass, Carlton, Hubbard, Itasca or Kanabec counties. But this is the first death in Minnesota attributed to the virus.
The Health Department also has identified infected deer ticks in Cass, Clearwater and Pine counties in northern Minnesota, as well as Houston County, in the southeastern part of the state.
The symptoms can include headache, vomiting, weakness, confusion, slurred speech and loss of coordination, and typically occur within one to five weeks of a tick bite.
The best defense, officials say, is to use tick repellents, wear long pants and light-colored clothing, and take other precautions to reduce exposure to ticks.
For more information, visit the Health Department website at www. startribune.com/a382.
Maura Lerner 612-673-7384