The groundhog tick also known as the woodchuck tick is primarily found in the Eastern and Central United States, as well as in Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec and the Atlantic provinces in Canada. Groundhog ticks are found mostly in the burrows of burrowing mammals including groundhogs, ground squirrels and skunks. This tick species tends to prefer to obtain blood meals from small mammals such as groundhogs, skunks, squirrels, raccoons and mink but on occasion will bite humans. Those at greatest risk are generally involved in activities in which borrows are disturbed most notably construction and landscaping tasks. The groundhog tick looks similar and is roughly the same size as the black-legged tick, the shape of its abdominal shield helps differentiate it from the black- legged tick; as its shield is more elongated than the oval shaped shield of the black legged tick. It is often necessary to use a microscope to differentiate the two species. The time of year the tick was witnessed can help ascertain which species you observed as the adult black-legged tick is most active in spring in fall while the groundhog tick’s peak activity period is the summer months. In addition, to having a similar appearance theses two species have another common dominator, they are both implicated in the transmission of Powassan virus.
Over the past decade or so, media focus on Lyme disease has turned the affliction into a household name. However, Lyme disease is not the only tickborne illness we need to worry about. While a tick must be attached for 24 hours for Lyme disease to be transmitted, Powassan virus can take as little as 15 minutes to be transmitted and can be fatal. Fortunately, the Powassan virus is currently exceedingly rare, but there is concern that the number of human cases is rising. An article in the Frontiers in Public Health notes there were a total number of 27 reported cases from 1958 to 1998 and 98 reported cases from 1999 to 2016, therefore reported cases have increased by 671% over the last 18 years. With a 671% rise in reported cases in the last 18 years as compared to the previous 40 years, Powassan virus has become an emerging concern.
The initial side effects of Powassan virus are not unique and can easily be confused with flu like illness, but it is always best to err on the side of caution before the symptoms become more severe. The severe symptoms of Powassan virus include difficulty speaking, confusion, and lack of co-ordination. These symptoms usually indicate signs of brain inflammation. Perhaps most frightening is the fact that there are currently no known medications to treat the virus, and around 10 to 15 percent of cases involving brain infections are fatal.
With a significant increase in the number of Powassan cases in the last decade, there is an urgent need for further research and understanding of the virus and the two vectors that transmit it, the black-legged and groundhog ticks.