Deadly New Tick-Borne Illness Spreading in New England

A disease deadlier than Lyme is showing up in ticks across New England.

It's called Powassan, and while it's rare, the disease is starting to spread.

"I don't want to scare people, but I want to scare people," said Susie Whittington. "They need to understand it's here. And this could have happened to anybody."

Whittington's mother, Lyn Snow, was bit by a tick two years ago. She had symptoms similar to Lyme disease. But quickly, her headaches turned into hallucinations. Her brain was swelling. Within one week, she was in a vegetative state.

"It's a very, very nasty virus," said Whittington.

Back then, doctors didn't have a name for it. After weeks of testing, they got their answer.

"I think the hard part is when we learned it was Powassan, it also meant that she was not going to get better," she said.

Powassan is like Lyme disease, but more extreme. Doctors believe it's transmitted from ticks faster and most people cannot recover from it.

Snow was the first and only known Powassan fatality in Maine.

"This was definitely a wake up call to the scientific community, particularly with regard to the state of Maine," said Maine Medical Center ecologist Susan Elias.

That's because the disease is spreading.

A new variant of the virus has spread to deer ticks and cases are showing up in states like New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts.

"It's such a rare disease that it's hard to see a trend," said Elias. "But when you put it together for the nation, it does appear that we are seeing more and more cases over time."

Maine Medical Center researchers now have a grant to study tick samples this summer, hoping to learn more about the spread of Powassan, and eventually find a cure.

"It's just hard. It's terrifying," said Whittington. "I can't think of losing another family member."

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