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Man Dies of Brain Inflammation Caused by Deer Tick Virus

5/14/2009

A 62-year-old man who died last year of brain inflammation after being bit by a deer tick could have been infected with the deer tick virus, a report released yesterday by the New England Journal of Medicine concluded. The most surprising aspect of the report is that this could be the first reported incident where a human has died due to the virus.

"Deer tick virus encephalitis [inflammation of the brain] is rare, but diagnostic testing is not routinely performed, so there could be cases out there we're actually missing," said Norma P. Tavakoli, lead author of the report and research scientist with the Wadsworth Center, New York State Department of Health in Albany. "Certainly, during early spring to fall in areas where infected ticks have been reported, testing should be done."

Usually hunters are advised to guard against tick bites because of possible Lyme disease transmission, but both virus transmissions are extremely rare according to experts as long as hunters and other outdoorsmen practice the right amount of prevention.

"It is quite a rare virus," Dr. Geoffrey Weinberg, a professor of pediatrics in the division of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said. "I would advise people not to be overly concerned. Ticks are less commonly infected with this than with Lyme disease and, even in Lyme, Conn., a minority of ticks are infected with Lyme disease. Also, the odds are 300-to-one that someone infected with the virus will develop encephalitis. The vast majority have no symptoms at all."

Deer tick virus symptoms can range from none at all to severe. The virus is a close cousin to West Nile virus transmitted by infected mosquitoes.

"Whether or not this will become a real problem, I don't think anybody knows. Obviously, there is no treatment for the virus so, really, prevention is the only thing you can do," said Dr. Peter Welch, an infectious disease specialist with Northern Westchester Hospital in Mt. Kisco, N.Y. "We should always be cautious to do our best to not be bitten by ticks. Check for ticks when you come out of the woods or anywhere there are ticks. Wear insect repellant which contains DEET."
 
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