Woman dies from rare tick-borne virus, doctors concerned about more cases

BOSTON — With a higher-than-usual tick season expected this year, doctors are warning about the risks of a bite and the dangers of untreated disease.

The rate of Lyme disease transmission is expected to increase, and many in the medical field are warning about a relatively new virus called Powassan.

After Boston 25 News reporter John Monahan first reported the dangers of Powassan last month, a New England woman reached out to talk about her mother’s death from the virus.

“My mom only lasted from Nov 9 to Dec. 18,” Susie Whittington said.

Whittington’s mother Lynn Snow was a well-known artist in Maine with galleries in Rockland and Portland.

“This was a vibrant woman. She walked three miles a day. She was riding horseback two days before,” Whittington said.

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But on Nov. 9 2013 she was bitten by two ticks. Snow was treated for Lyme disease, but what that failed she ended up in the ER.

“She had fever chills, nausea, vomiting, disorientation, incredible aches and pain, couldn’t bend her head or neck,” Whittington said.

Her symptoms kept getting worse, and eventually Snow was transported to Maine Medical Center in Portland.

On Dec. 17, doctors finally figured out Snow had contracted Powassan virus but by then it was too late.

“They told us she had Powassan and was unrecoverable. So we disconnected life support on Dec. 18,” Whittington said.

Dr. Jennifer Lyons, Chief of Neurological Infections and Inflammatory Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital says the virus is deadly.

“Everyone is susceptible. That’s another reason it is scary,” she said.

Lyons suspects many who get bitten by a tick carrying Powassan never exhibit symptoms, but 10 percent die and 50 percent of people who show symptoms can suffer permanent neurological damage.

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To make matters worse, bitten you can be infected in minutes.

“We do think it could occur within 15 minutes of the tick being on your skin,” Lyons said.

Whittington’s mother was one of those unfortunate victims. Dr. Lyons suspects a weakened immune system may make some people more vulnerable.

“There is some connection with the integrity of your immune system and the ability of the virus to attack you,” Lyons said.

by telling others her mom’s story, Whittington hopes people will take precautions from tick bites.

“This is really important and that’s why we speak out because we don’t want anyone to go through what we went through,” she said.

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