It all started in the shower. Tucker Lane looked down, and there they were.
“Two ticks, on my right hip, directly next to each other,” he says.
At the time, Lane didn’t think much about it. He grew up on Cape Cod. Ticks are everywhere there in the summer. “Just another tick bite. Not a big deal,” he thought.
That was June. In September, everything changed.
“I was working outside, and I just had a pounding headache,” says Lane, 24, who works as a plumber and at a pizza restaurant.
He tried taking ibuprofen. But that night the headache got worse. “I was sweating but was cold. And I had tremors,” he says.
He started projectile vomiting. He developed a high fever and double vision.
After two trips to the doctors — and no improvement — Lane’s mother, Lynn Cash, called an ambulance.
But scans of his brain showed that it was swelling. And he was quickly losing consciousness. His doctors decided to rush him to Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
“By the time they got him upstairs [into a room], within another 48 hours, he was in a coma,” Cash says.
At that point, doctors were stumped. They thought he might have some kind of infection. “His MRI was very severe,” says Jennifer Lyons, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “He had a lot of inflammation in the very deep parts of his brain.” But she didn’t know what was causing the infection.
Cash felt differently. She says she knew exactly where the problem was coming from: “I knew it was a tick thing.”
Cash’s family has been on Cape Cod for many generations; she has seen a lot of Lyme disease and even had it herself. But she had never seen anything like this. This was something new. Something even more frightening.
The more we look, the more we find
The world is in a new age of infectious diseases.
The U.S. is no exception.
The country is a hot spot for tick-borne diseases. In the past 50 years, scientists have detected at least a dozen new diseases transmitted by ticks.
And that’s just in the Northeast.
In the Midwest, you can find Heartland virus, a new Lyme-like disease and Bourbon virus — which is thought to be spread by ticks but hasn’t been proven yet. In the South, there’s Southern tick-associated rash illness. Out west, there’s a new type of spotted fever. And across a big swath of the country, there’s a disease called ehrlichiosis.
Most of these diseases are still rare. But one is especially worrying. “It’s a scary one,” Keesing says.
“Our local tick — this blacklegged tick — occasionally carries a deadly virus that’s called Powassan virus,” says Rick Ostfeld, a disease ecologist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y.
Powassan is named after a town in Ontario, Canada, where the virus was discovered in 1958. Now it’s here in the U.S. The country records about seven cases each year on the East Coast and in the Upper Midwest.
What makes Powassan so dangerous is that it attacks the brain, making it swell up. In about 10 percent of cases, Powassan is deadly. And if you do recover, you have about a 50 percent chance of permanent neurological damage.